08/20/2013 08:26 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Where Everybody Knows Your Name: The First Step to Housing Someone Homeless


The Pizza Lady

My youngest son's kindergarten has an optional, three-days-a week hot lunch program; for a nominal sum, he can have pizza on Tuesdays, chicken tenders on Wednesdays and mac/cheese on Thursdays. Because his school is in a proper D.C. suburb, all meals come with organic vegetables and a small dessert. The desserts get eaten; the vegetables, not so much.

Walking into the school one afternoon last fall, I saw a few pizza boxes and a container of baby carrots stacked on a table. I talked to the school administrator; the school immediately and happily agreed to let me bring leftovers to Bethesda Cares, the homeless outreach agency at which I was then consulting (and where I now work).

So three afternoons a week, my son and I would walk to my SUV, arms laden with bounty for Bethesda Cares' drop-in center. He would pester me for a bite. "No," I'd say, brushing his hand from the pizza boxes. "This is for the homeless dudes!"

"For the homeless dudes."

That's what I said, day after day.

But honestly, at the time, I even felt kinda cool about it. Like, you know, selflessly delivering those pizza boxes somehow gave me the right to be familiar with that unfamiliar, edgy substrata of our society: "the homeless dudes."

Not individuals, mind you, but rather a nameless swath of humanity who would benefit from my largesse.

Reader, I know. Arrogant. Blithe. Insulting. But like most of the things I have shared with you in this new blog, I didn't know better, until I knew better.

"Ending" Homelessness

Looking at humanity as swaths is not just an unappealing quality in a person; it doesn't work as a policy matter, either.

Consider large, sweeping social goals, like "Save the Planet," "Defeat Terrorism," or "End Poverty." The futility of even aiming for something so vast and amorphous has always struck me as, well, futile. "Ending homelessness," was in that category, too. Where do you even start with these tasks? They overwhelm. Nice ideas, but too big to get your arms around them.

Or so I thought. I was wrong, at least about "ending homelessness." It's within our grasp. Just not in a big, bald, grandiose way.

How does one, how do we collectively, "end homelessness"?

We don't end homelessness for the planet. We end it for individuals. One person at a time.

You absolutely cannot find a home for someone you do not know, personally. Think about it: you can't just pop up a large block of free housing and declare homelessness defeated. You have to know who needs to move into those homes.

To "end homelessness," even for one person, you must learn his story, his health, his strengths and frailties. You will help him martial whatever resources he has, assess his housing options, fill out endless paperwork, shepherd him through interviews, secure any benefits to which he is entitled, help him find linens if he gets a home. It is an intimate, painstaking process.

And it works better if you don't just sit in an office waiting for someone to come ask for help.

Thus, Bethesda Cares' outreach team goes out into the streets, at all hours of the day and night. We introduce ourselves to each person we locate sleeping unsheltered. We invite them to come to our offices. And when they do come to our drop-in center, we greet them by name.

Personally knowing each individual who is experiencing homelessness in a community, in order to help "end" it, is not something Bethesda Cares invented. It's a "best practice" in the field. It works not just because knowing the name of someone you want to help it is a practical requirement, but because it is a humane one, as well. We don't work with "swaths." We work with Jasper, and with Robert, and with....well, you get the idea....