05/16/2012 10:29 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

The Many Faces of Homelessness

There is a visual impression implanted in the minds of so many in this country of what people who experience homelessness are supposed to look like. It is an illustration that all homeless populations consist of those we see begging for money on street corners, sleeping on park benches or caring all their possessions around with them. These are individuals that we remember well from the 1970s and '80s, which were people that had addiction and/or mental health issues. While there is still a percentage of the homeless population today that are represented by individuals with these experiences they are considered the chronically homeless.

More recently, the country has witnessed a surge in families experiencing homelessness. Here is an example of one such family. Luis was a teenager; he faced hardships that no child should have to endure. Luis lost his father and brother in the same year due to health-related issues. He still had the support of his mother and sisters, but caring for three small children alone became a burden on his mother. The family faced homelessness and eventually, had to live on the streets for a period of time. They were fortunate to be able to find a place to live, but his family turned to collecting empty cans and bottles on the street in order to make ends meet. As if these struggles were not hard enough, Luis lost his mother a few years later. Any ordinary person may have given up hope, but Luis recalls that positive memories of his mother helped him get through these challenging moments in his life. He eventually moved in with his sister and completed high school. Luis is now an active youth disciple at his church and uses his life experience to uplift others.

Families are a newer face to homelessness that run the gamut, due to situations regarding financial instabilities, not having access to health care, unemployment, lack of affordable housing and the recent trend of foreclosures. However, the youth have their own face to homelessness as well, such as those who either run away from home or age out of the foster care system with no guidance and resort to "couch surfing." This is a group that is blending in with their counterparts in our school systems, making their situation invisible.

As a way to educate and have the community become more aware and sensitive to the experience of homelessness, the Miami Coalition for the Homeless and other organizations around the country that focus their mission on ending and preventing homelessness, have established a Speaker's Bureau. The Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau is a program spearheaded by the National Coalition for the Homeless that is composed of people who are or have been homeless, and it works to educate and advocate to the public about issues surrounding homelessness. One of its main reasons for establishment was as a response to the growing number of hate crimes towards the homeless that were taking place. Each bureau is organized by AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers who are responsible for recruiting speakers, setting up presentations and providing resources to create opportunities for their speakers. Since July 2010, the Miami Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau has educated more than 7,000 community members that consist of the K-12 population, universities, churches and civic organizations. The primary goal of the Speakers' Bureau is to make our communities more aware of a social issue that many of us catch a glimpse of frequently but fail to know the reality behind it.

Miami's local bureau consists of a very diverse group of individuals of all ages, gender, religious and ethnic backgrounds. In order for our readers to acquire a better understanding of an individual's experience entering the realm of homelessness and the efforts they underwent to have that be one of their life's journeys, we will be featuring their stories in future blogs. In addition to these testimonies, our blog will serve to inform and ignite conversation about the plethora of current issues surrounding homelessness and those that it effects in our country.