Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Homeless people to tell teens about life on the street:

David Pirtle thought the worst of homeless people. They were bums, derelicts, worthless.

They were lazy, crazy and smelly.

It was a notion he believed as a teen and a young adult.

"Right up until I became homeless," he said.

Now, the Washington, D.C., man shares his story with youths across the country in the hopes of breaking down stereotypes and putting an end to violence against homeless people.

The message is coming to a city near you.

The National Coalition for the Homeless is creating up to a dozen local speakers' bureaus in Florida cities this fall. Daytona Beach and Orlando are among them.

The effort began in the early 1990s when a "Faces of Homelessness" speakers bureau was established in Washington. Small panels of people who have been or still are homeless speak at high schools, colleges and youth groups and share their experiences on the street.

That group travels across the country, and a handful of other bureaus have popped up in cities. But this is the first time the coalition is targeting an entire state.

"Florida is one of the meanest states for the homeless," said Michael O'Neill, head of the Washington-based bureau.

Florida has experienced more attacks against the homeless than any other state, according to the coalition. Statistics show eight homeless people died here in 2006 as a result of attacks, mostly at the hands of young people.

Groups try to stop attacks

In 2005, Michael Roberts was killed in the woods of Holly Hill when four teens repeatedly beat him with sticks, fists and logs. Earlier this year, John D'Amico suffered lifelong injuries when a cinderblock was smashed into his face in Daytona Beach during an attack by a 17-year-old and two 10-year-olds, who are thought to be the youngest attackers of the homeless.

Organizers also say Florida has a record of criminalizing homelessness by enacting policies that target the group.

The Orlando City Council last year passed an ordinance that prohibits groups from feeding the homeless on city property downtown without a permit. Each group can get two permits a year.

"When cities debate, pass and support such laws, it gives the impression that homeless people are the scum of the Earth," said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "The city wants to get rid of them, so young people think they'll do it."

His organization will coordinate with local homeless coalitions and assistance groups to set up the panels of speakers, who will receive a small honorarium for their time. They should be in the schools by November.

George Crossley president of the Central Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, welcomes the speakers.

"I am all for anything that will cause young people to stop thinking about homeless people as worthless," he said. "I think that is some education that's much needed."

Raymond Adkins has been homeless for seven years. He thinks having homeless people go into the schools would debunk stereotypes and show teens what it's really like to live on the streets.

"It would show the kids to not mistreat the homeless," he said outside the Homeless Assistance Center in Daytona Beach, where meals are served each afternoon. Adkins, who lost his home and business after a "nasty divorce" and also served time in prison, said he would be willing to share his story. "It's rough out here."

Daniel Hargett, who is passing through Daytona Beach on his way back to Ohio, said it would probably be better to make the teens hit the streets with the homeless.

"Take all the kids that throw the rocks and put them on the streets with [the homeless] . . . and see how they live," he said. "They wouldn't make it one day without their mommy."

Barbara Burns, the sister of Michael Roberts, already shares her brother's story with youth groups and told the coalition she would participate in a panel discussion. Her hope is that the speakers will be able to motivate teens to become activists for the homeless.

"It just starts with one," she said. "Then it just carries on over."


Pirtle, who lived on the streets for three years, already is seeing change by telling his story.

He had a "normal" life and worked as a restaurant manager in Phoenix until he began experiencing symptoms of schizoaffective disorder, a type of schizophrenia. His unexplained actions caused him to lose his job and his apartment, and he started hopping trains east.

He slept on park benches, rummaged for food in garbage and stayed in abandoned houses before heading to Washington, where he stayed in a shelter.

"I remember the very first night -- it was earth-shattering," Pirtle said. "It's a completely other world when you're standing outside in the middle of the night and you realize you have no place to go."

He began speaking to teens last fall and said it's amazing to see teens change their attitudes and get out in the community to help the homeless.

"No matter what you think about people who are homeless, you are wrong," he said.

by Kristen Reed, Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer August 27, 2007

This might be an interesting post:

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