Magazine article Parks & Recreation

How to Program to the Homeless

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

How to Program to the Homeless

Article excerpt

For some time, the recreation profession has been urging its people to abandon their exclusively middle-class mindset and return to their social service roots. From their vantage point, the profession's leaders can see that history is repeating itself, and--as happened in our profession 100 years ago--our communities and urban centers are faced with an array of steadily growing social ills.

Yet, at the same time, our leaders are trying to tell us that we have unlimited opportunities to make recreation an important and integral part of an overall solution to these social problems.

Among the most serious of society's ills is poverty. Although this problem has been around for many years, a serious offshoot of poverty--homelessness--increasingly has become a problem in this country. Today, millions of Americans are homeless; and a person can barely walk through the streets of any city or town without seeing the damage that homelessness has done to the men, women, and children of our communities.

Recreation leaders urge us to reach out to this segment of society and provide programs that may bring help improve their health, bring them some fun and happiness, and generally boost their quality of life.

This is a tall order and one which many recreation professional feel ill-equipped to handle. Examining how my district, Mecklenberg County in Charlotte, NC, addressed this issue perhaps can give others ideas about how they can help the homeless--via recreation programs and other activities--in their communities.


My first task was to define for myself who the homeless in my community were, determine how they became homeless, what it feels like to have no place to live, and, most importantly, what their needs were. I contacted national organizations, introduced myself to officials at local shelters and related agencies, and became involved in a newly formed network of more than 50 homeless service providers.

I soon found that recreation programs filled a gaping hole in the "continuum of care" then being provided to the homeless. Prior to my arrival on the scene, recreation for the homeless had been uncharted territory.

As a result of my research, I discovered that the "homeless" I was to serve were not the stereotypical "street people" depicted wheeling shopping carts through the streets, reeking of liquor, and mumbling incoherently. Rather, they actually are people in transition who have housing of one form or another, and who are under the guidance of a case manager or social worker. More specifically, I learned that on any given night there are an estimated 1,000 people in transitional settings in Mecklenburg County. As for the 2,000 "unsheltered" street people in our county, I had decided that I eventually would target them too, but for the time being, I needed to keep my focus on those people in the shelters and those being served by homeless service agencies.

It was not long before I discovered that my constituents were not "untouchables" to be viewed with pity but they were individuals with the same basic dreams and aspirations in life as most people have.

It was quite a surprise to learn that there were former entrepreneurs, successful professionals, and scholars with Ph.D.s among this seemingly throwaway population. This realization immediately put us on equal ground, which is the most honest and productive vantage point for program development. Haughtiness and lack of sincerity are detected easily by these people, but so are honesty, integrity, and genuine concern.

Planning and Development

Looking back over the past 12 months, the programs I created were not what I would call extraordinary, or even ones that required a therapeutic recreation background to develop. …

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