A man on a stage addresses a room.
Archive photo

“What are some of the stereotypes you have about homeless people?” Michael O’Neill, the coordinator of Washington, D.C.’s Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, asks, addressing a class at Georgetown University.

“They’re drug addicts,” one student calls out.

Other students speaker up.

“They’re lazy.”

“They’re beggars.”

“They’re dirty.”

“They’re crazy.”

O’Neill points out that even if there is a truth in some of these stereotypes, they are effects of homelessness – not causes.

The classroom is full of college students from around the country, dressed in business attire, after a day spent interning in D.C. One of the students is hastily finishing of French bread, cheese, and sushi. At the front of the room, accompanied by O’Neill, is a panel of three homeless and formerly homeless speakers, prepared to share their stories with the class and field any questions the students may have. Most of the young adults in this room come from upper-middle-class families, and for many, this is there first experience with homeless people beyond passing them on the street.

This scene could be any one of the Bureaus 133 “gigs” so far this year. The Bureau’s 23 speakers are in high demand, and address college classes, religious, youth, and civic groups in hopes of giving people a new outlook on homelessness. Last year, the Bureau spoke to over 14,000 people in more than 30 states, and to 216 groups. “I receive emails, phone calls, and faxes for gigs all the time,” O’Neill said.

Though the Speakers’ Bureau has been recognized as a formal part of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) for only about 10 years, its conception began nearly three decades ago.

“I was one of the founding members of NCH,” said Michael Stoops, NCH’s acting executive director. “I’d always be asked to speak at churches, synagogues, and civic groups, and I began a tradition that wherever I’d go I would take a homeless or formerly homeless person with me.”

At a speaking event in the late 1970s, Stoops was traveling with Benjamin, a homeless s friend, a noticed that the group seemed very interested in Benjamin, asking questions and talking to him at dinner. When it was Stoops’ turn to speak, he decided to share the podium with his friend.

“It was amazing,” Stoop said. “When we were finished talking, all of the questions were for Benjamin. I realized that there was really a need for this kind of advocacy.”

Over time, a more structured panel of speakers began to coalesce, and by the mid-1990s, the Speakers’ Bureau was formed. In 1999, the NCH was granted an AmeriCorps*VISTA member, who took much of the day-to-day responsibility for the Bureau off Stoops’ shoulders, though he is still very involved with the program.

According to the NCH’s advocacy website, homeless advocates believe that the Speakers’ Bureau is “one of the most effective ways not only to educate others about homelessness, but to empower many of those whose voices have traditionally not been heard.” In both cases, the Speakers’ Bureau is meeting its goal.

“The average person we reach has no idea what it’s like to be homeless,” speaker Dana Woolfolk said.

“I just love educating the public,” veteran speaker Cheryl Barnes said. “People see that person sleeping on a bench and think they’re just a drain on the system. But that person you see on the bench could be waiting to go to work at 6:00. Unless somebody tells these people, they don’t know.”

“When I tell these kids my story,” Barnes added, “I let them know that drinking and drugging aren’t funny, and they aren’t cute. A lot of bad things can happen in life, and they can happen at young ages. Everybody goes through it. And I make sure that they know they really can become homeless.”

One of the Speakers’ Bureau’s most long-standing partners is Panim: the Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values in Rockville, Maryland. Panels have been visiting Panim’s leadership seminars consistently for nearly 10 years.  “These students meet ambassadors and lobbyists, but almost every time, we’re the most highly rated,” Stoops said.

Panim’s Rabbi Rid Schwarz added, “Their program is tremendously impactful. It really turns the heads of our kids upside down.” The speakers can see the changes in the way students are beginning to view homelessness.

“What I really like is the questions that our stories generate from the audience,” Woolfolk said. Stoops agreed. “I see the impact that we have, and the way the two sides interact, and it’s just wonderful.”

The Speakers’ Bureau also changes the way speakers think. “How would you feel about telling your story?” Barnes recalled being asked. “I didn’t know I had one,” she said, but with the help of an NCH intern, she put her tale on paper.

Ten years later, Barnes is still speaking with the bureau. “Every time I tell my story, I heal,” she said.