Radio host Jeremy Alderson interviewing guests at the 2014 Homelessness Marathon
Jeremy Alderson

Since 1999 Jeremy Alderson has produced a yearly “marathon” radio broadcast intended to inform listeners about the widespread homelessness problem in the United States. The 18th Annual Homelessness Marathon will take place Wednesday, February 17, from 7 p.m EST until 9 a.m. the following morning.

“This isn’t fundraising, it’s consciousness-raising,” said Alderson, who stressed that the purpose of the marathon is not to raise money. There are no official sponsors or corporate partnerships.

Alderson conceived the marathon in 1998 when a period of homelessness in his own life propelled him toward advocacy. He hosted a local radio show called “The Nobody Show” out of Ithaca, New York, and decided to start using the radio as a platform to call for change.

“There wasn’t much to the original idea,” he admits. “Just rant and rave for a while. I thought the first one was awful, but I was amazed at the positive response. I realized that in its own funny way, it was a hit. People got it.”

Although the marathon will take place here in Washington, radio hosts around the country will be encouraging people in their cities to call in and share their personal experiences. The show will include contributions from homeless encampments across the country as well as art shared by local street performers, musicians, and poets. The discussion schedule will vary; each hour will have its own theme. The broadcast will include several pre-recorded reports, but the rest of the event will be broadcast live. The main radio booth will be located outside the Church of the Epiphany on 13th and G Streets NW.

[Disclosure: Street Sense Media rents office space from the Church of the Epiphany]

Despite the expanding size of the marathon, Alderson is still amazed that his first show could evolve into something as big as this upcoming event. “We’re speaking to the entire nation now. We’ve got dozen of stations set up.” The broadcast will be available from a number of different sources, including online streaming. It will involve homeless communities across the country.

While most other marathons and marches would be held during warmer summer months, Alderson has specific reasons for picking February. Having the marathon in the middle of winter draws attention to the extreme cold and harsh weather that many homeless Americans face throughout a good part of the year. Alderson also avoids the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when most mainstream coverage of homelessness takes place. “That kind of coverage is about pitying the homeless, and that’s not what the marathon is about. The marathon is about social justice.”

The year 2016 is also going to add significance to the marathon. The upcoming election has inspired what Alderman calls “the first ever homeless primary.” He plans to poll the local homeless community on their presidential picks. “We want to show that all homeless people are different. We’re going to ask them all the same question and listen to their different answers.”

In Alderson’s eyes, the primary could reveal what he believes is the best kept secret about homeless folks in the country. “They’re American citizens!” he said enthusiastically. “They’re people with voting rights. Homeless Americans hold the same basic rights as any United States citizen, but the increasing criminalization of poverty has often led to this being overlooked.”

One way that Alderson plans to raise awareness about this issue is with a march around the White House, which will take place during the broadcast. Along with welcoming locals to join them, Alderson is also inviting all of the 2016 presidential candidates.

“I don’t expect them to show up!” he exclaimed. But he’s extending that invitation to try to bridge the immense gap between massively powerful lawmakers and homeless people within the city.

Reginald Black, one of Street Sense’s writers and vendors, hopes to get a speaking spot during the broadcast. He plans on talking about “social discrimination,” which according to Black, covers other categories of discrimination and can be found throughout our daily lives.

“Say you live with your sister, you’re roommates,” Black said. “The two of you get into a fight, and eventually one of you asks the other to leave. Now, one of you is homeless. We don’t think about the consequences of our day-to-day conflicts. And this can happen in families, in relationships, anywhere.”

He hopes to use the homelessness marathon to start a conversation about social discrimination.

“I want to get different perspectives about it to enhance the dialogue. I want to encourage people to think about someone who may be experiencing housing insecurity. I want them to use their voice to speak for themselves or speak on behalf of someone else. We need to talk. We need to elevate our voices.”

When asked if the marathon can be used to bring hope to the homeless in America, Jeremy Alderson paused for a moment before responding. “The people who speak on the show tell us that they have been given a greater sense of dignity. They have something to say and are finally treated [with respect.] But the situation is dire.”

Nonetheless, Alderson remains optimistic about the role of the average American citizen in the fight against homelessness. He believes in them. He sees the marathon as an opportunity to spread caring and understanding throughout the local community and the country.
“You don’t have to tell American people to care,” he said. “They do care and they do understand.”