In Memory of Michael Stoops

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I sat shivering, sitting on a box, covered by a blanket, a warm woolen hat pulled down over my ears. I was attempting to keep out the cold and wet that had been threatening to invade my body for the last two days. I held up a sign: “Hungry, can’t go home. Please help.”  My friend Myles was asking people for money.

We were teenage runaways, panhandling for money in Dupont Circle.  All I wanted was the ability to sit inside the warm pizzeria located across the street as I enjoyed the taste of a hot slice of mushroom pizza. It’s all I’d been thinking about all morning biting into that gooey cheese and watching the string as I pulled the slice away from my mouth. I was tired of the food people were leaving for me or I picked up at the local soup kitchens. Finding food wasn’t the problem.  It was plentiful.

Our new friend Bob took us to the places he frequented throughout his days since we were new to DC. The church we went to for breakfast. Next was the 9-11 Club that was open from 9:00am to 11:00am just like you would think. It was a place to grab a snack for the day, drink some hot coffee, use a real restroom before you headed to the next place for lunch.

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There wasn’t a place to go to in the afternoons. On the first day it was sunny and relatively warm that October so we went to a park near GW University where they would be serving dinner later. I talked to a gentleman from Germany. We passed the time by sharing our stories about how we got to be on the street and then telling tall tales from lives we used to know.Sometimes the food was literally brought to us, along with warm blankets and warm clothes. 

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The very next morning, a sack breakfast and hot cup of coffee was left by our heads as we awoke outside the Federal Reserve.  Myles and I had joined about 50 other homeless people the night before.  A blanket was given to me as well as a warm hat and rain poncho. It was cold and damp and hard to get the stiffness out of my limbs.  The only issue I had with sleeping outside was that I had to squat and pee over a grate instead of using a restroom. I’d like to use that restroom in the pizzeria across the street I thought to myself, but it was for customers only. Hence my quest for warmth, toilet paper, and a hot meal of MY choosing.

We could’ve stayed in a shelter the night before but they wanted us to pray and we weren’t Christian, so Bob led us over to the Federal Reserve. “You’ll get to see Alan Greenspan play tennis!” he exclaimed. He was right and it was pretty cool be so close and him not to notice us.

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That was the hardest part – the not being noticed. People would nearly bump into us as we walked down the streets of Washington, DC, garbage bags filled with belongings hosted over our shoulders. People wouldn’t or couldn’t look us in the eye. They might look for a second and then look away immediately.

The worst part? I used to do the same thing to homeless people as I walked down the street. But now I was one of them. The strangest thing was that “regular” people had faded into the background, I barely saw them as I walked the streets.  Homeless people, those that I used to try to avoid and ignore were these crisp images that were now in view like when the eye doctor finally gets your prescription right and you can read that bottom line of the eye chart.  

We’d nod to acknowledge one another. Sometimes we’d share a cigarette or a piece of food or ask whether there might be a better place to get a meal or lay our heads.  Sometimes we’d just sit silently by each other watching the rest of the world go by, comforted for just a moment in knowing that there was someone else like us out here.

But there was a BIG difference between me and Myles, and Bob our Chaperone and the rest of the people we met during that weekend.

See Myles and I were not actually homeless. We were part of an “Urban Plunge” designed by Michael Stoops – our friend and mentor. Michael was one of the founding board members of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and the co-founder of the North American Street Newspaper Association.

Michael was a visionary. He felt that the disconnect about homelessness or “compassion fatigue” as he called it was because society didn’t see homeless people as “real” people. They didn’t take the time to hear their stories, get to know them and truly understand that any one of us is potentially a paycheck away from being homeless. Unfortunately, this continues to be true today.

Michael had asked me to participate in his experiment because I was the new Executive Director of the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homeless (NSCAHH). He wanted me to take a walk in the shoes of the homeless and encourage other college students to do the same. He asked Myles, a staff member of another student led organization to join me.  We were allowed 50 cents in our shoe, a piece of ID, and Bob our Chaperone for the weekend.

That is how Michael’s program got started.

Michael was passionate about giving homeless people a voice. This is why he founded NCH’s National Speakers Bureau for the Homeless. The very first panel, he called “Faces of the Homeless” was unveiled at the 1991 NSCAHH Annual Conference held at Marquette University. Those VERY generous people told us their stories and we listened like small children comprehending their very first book. Worlds opened up for all of us as we sat with tears streaming down our faces. We stood in line to get the autographs of the people who spoke.

My life was profoundly changed by Michael Stoops in 1991. At a personal level to be sure, but at a professional level I disrupted the framework in which I had held how to solve society’s biggest problems. Poverty being number one. 

The staff and I at NSCAHH crafted a new plan of action we called “Project Partnership” – a plan where students worked in partnership with the homeless to identify solutions. This gave homeless people a voice. And Project Partnership, initially funded by a generous grant from VISTA has now become a cornerstone for NSCAHH’s organizing efforts.

That shift became the mantra for the rest of my grassroots organizing career. Give the people who are impacted by any problem a voice and they will be the creative spark to find new solutions to age old issues.

Tomorrow we lay Michael to rest. He died so young at only 67.  We will miss his crooked smile, the sparkle in his eyes, and his generous and compassionate heart.   The movement will miss his vision, his strategic mind and his passion to make a difference on the planet. Goodbye old friend. You’ve made indelible mark on my heart and brain and for that I thank you.

Jennifer CokenComment