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"When We Walk By" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

As cities across the United States seek to address chronic homelessness, Kevin Adler and Donald Burnes offer a humanizing analysis of the problem, and possible solutions, including what an individual can do to help ease this crisis in their book "When We Walk By: Forgotten Humanity, Broken Systems, and the Role We Can Each Play in Ending Homelessness in America."

Polls indicate that, in our otherwise divided country, 80% of U.S. citizens agree there is a homeless crisis in our country. The authors' study suggests “at some point over the course of the year the number of homeless is about six million” or 1.8 percent of the US population. This estimate is based on totals from shelters, transitional housing, and estimates of people living in abandoned buildings, cars, and other sites.

Adler and his team of researchers maintain the two major factors that prevent the US from addressing this critical issue are a.) service systems that fail to provide people with healthcare, housing, and government benefits to which they are entitled and b.) “…the crisis in our shared humanity, how we have lost sight of the fact that people experiencing homelessness are our fellow human beings.”

The authors ask: “When was the last time you saw a homeless person? What did you do? Did you say anything? Did you offer a smile or try to avert your gaze?” Adler and Burnes call this avoidance of the homeless “relational poverty” and maintain that chronic homelessness is a byproduct of our social systems failing and our humanity failing.

“When We Walk By” challenges myths like “All homeless people are addicts” and “They'd have a house if they got a job.” It discloses that countless Americans are only one paycheck away from being homeless. The book challenges individuals to move away from “us versus them” thinking and to view homeless people with compassion.

            Overcoming homelessness calls for accurate information from government agencies such as citing the number of unhoused who have an untreated mental illness or a substance abuse problem. “In the absence of quality systems of care or basic compassion from the communities, people experiencing homelessness with mental health and/or substance use issues tend to self-isolate and self-loathe,” the authors write. This leads to “worse health outcomes.” Both physical and relational poverty must be addressed for homelessness to be overcome.

Many remedies are offered by the pioneering work of Adler and the agency he founded, Miracle Messengers, a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless rebuild family relationships and establish financial stability. Adler calls for all members of society to treat the unhoused as fellow human beings to be loved, not as public nuisances. He looks forward to a future where everyone is recognized as interconnected and invaluable.

This organization has helped more than 800 national unhoused individuals reunite with family members and locate other supportive groups and individuals. Internationally, it has matched hundreds more with phone buddies who make weekly calls and texts to provide support to their assigned homeless partners.

Adler and Burnes have provided a deeply humanizing analysis aimed at challenging the way society thinks about poverty and homelessness. For those acquainted with the subject, it is an important resource: for those looking for an introduction, this book is an excellent place to begin.

About the Authors: Kevin F. Adler is a social entrepreneur, nonprofit leader, and author. His pioneering work on homelessness and relational poverty has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, and PBS NewsHour. He has been honored as a Presidential Leadership Scholar.

Don Burnes and his wife, Lynn, are the co-founders of the Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. He is a co-author with Alice Baum of “A Nation in Denial: The Truth about Homelessness.” Burnes received his MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching) from Washington University and his PhD in the politics of education from Columbia University.


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