Read Martha Fleetwood’s “Homeless Services in the U.S.: Looking Back, Looking Forward: An Open Letter to Policymakers, Advocates, and Providers”.
It’s part of the HRC Special Issue on “The Future of Homeless Services”.
Martha Fleetwood has perspective. She recently shared her reflections and insights on the past thirty years of homeless services in the United States. Her collaborations have informed progress and change in the field of housing and homeless services.
Martha has two hopes for the future of homeless services. “I hope that we can continue to invest in solutions, be flexible, adaptable, and let people experiment. That is how we got where we are today. It is not because one group had the answer and received all the money. I also hope that people understand that we are going change the problems in our world by changing ourselves. This has to be reflected in our organizations,” says Martha.
She is the Executive Director of HomeBase, The Center for Common Concerns, in San Francisco, and the recent author of the HRC’s Open Journal editorial, Homeless Services in the U.S.: Looking Back, Looking Forward: An Open Letter to Policymakers, Advocates, and Providers.
Martha shares the story of her own education about homelessness. In the early 1970s, there were far fewer people who were visibly homeless in the United States. It wasn’t until Martha was studying in West Africa that she saw people who had been rejected by their communities. It was her first encounter with homelessness. “I recall people with deformities sleeping on the sidewalk,” explains Martha. Locals told her that the people she saw had drug and health problems, couldn’t earn a living, and were often just released from prison. No one spoke about the lack of support systems to help people living on the streets.
During this time, she began to experience recurring dreams of New York City streets filled with people living in makeshift shelters. When she shared the dream with a colleague from New York, he scoffed. He said that would never happen in New York City. It seemed impossible in 1970. Yet, she wondered, “How many years forward do you go before you see that kind of homelessness in New York City?”
After completing her law degree at Harvard University, Martha worked in the Carter Administration at the Solicitor General’s Office in the Justice Department. She lived 12 blocks from the Capitol. Her daily walk to work presented her with the new face of homelessness in the 1980s. “Every day, an older man who was homeless would stand in the street outside my office. He would answer the pay phone on the street as the Solicitor General.” recalls Martha.
Next, Martha worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization for ethnic minorities. She observed people who were affected by the conditions in mental institutions and prisons. People were coming out of institutions with no place to go. She saw a shortage of systemic support and an overwhelming tide of need.
During the Reagan administration, Martha moved to San Francisco to work for a public interest law firm. “I arrived and asked my colleague, so what are the problems? They told me to go find out.” She headed out on a listening tour to understand the problems and concerns of constituency groups around the nation.
She approached the tour with a willingness to listen and learn. “One of my mentors, Thomas Atkins, taught me how to sit in comfort in a community setting with real people and real problems.” This is a practice called radical lawyering and informs the philosophy of HomeBase today. “It is a very different approach. Rather than say, I am the smart one, the consultant, the lawyer with a solution, follow me, I keep my mouth shut and listen to what people want to change.” says Martha.
Three months of conversations revealed serious concerns about homelessness, healthcare, and education. “As a firm of seven lawyers, we looked at these issues and decided to tackle the top tier. I was handed housing and homelessness,” explains Martha. This collaborative work lead to new projects that planted seeds to grow the infrastructure for homeless services.
In 1987, Martha worked on the congressional delegation that passed the McKinney Vento Act. Passed and signed into law by President Reagan, the McKinney Vento Act was the first significant federal legislative response to homelessness. It is considered landmark legislation. “At the time, it was a disappointment as opposed to a celebration and I recall my dismay over the provisions that did not get passed.”
Since then, her perspective has shifted. With each success, Martha has realized that much has been created from very little. “While we still don’t have what we need, we have created a national infrastructure of response that did not exist in the mid 1980s.”
“I have no idea what is ahead, but it is inspiring to see that our work has lead to something,” says Martha. She speaks about the importance of mirroring to the rest of society a cooperative, collegial, and compassionate way of assisting others that nourishes both caregivers, and those receiving care.
Martha’s own self-care practice is a principled reflection of who she is. “I have been practicing yoga since I was 16. It is how I have always lived. I got lucky.” She learned to do yoga, slowly, quietly and on her own. Today she teaches a yoga class for women with co-occurring disorders in Oakland, California.
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