The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Conversation with Kevin Adler
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Conversation with Kevin Adler

Reimagining our neighbors

This weeks conversation is with Kevin Adler, an advocate for our neighbors experiencing homelessness. We talk about the idea of homelessness, how his work is reimagining the situation, and what each of us can do about it.

About Kevin Adler

Kevin F. Adler is an award-winning social entrepreneur, nonprofit leader and author. Since 2014, he has served as the Founder and CEO of Miracle Messages, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to helping people experiencing homelessness rebuild their social support systems and financial security, primarily through family reunification services, a phone buddy program and direct cash transfers, including one of the first basic income pilots for unhoused individuals in the United States. Kevin’s pioneering work on homelessness and relational poverty has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, PBS NewsHour, in his TED Talk and elsewhere. Kevin is also the author of Natural Disasters as a Catalyst for Social Capital, a book that explores how shared traumas can unite or divide communities. He has been honored as a Presidential Leadership Scholar, TED Resident, and Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, for which he served one year in Oaxaca, Mexico. He received his MPhil in sociology from the University of Cambridge and his BA in politics from Occidental College. Kevin lives in the Bay Area with his wife, Tajáh. Motivated by his late mother’s work teaching at underserved adult schools and nursing homes, and his late uncle’s 30 years living on and off the streets, Kevin believes in a future where everyone is recognized as invaluable and interconnected.

Connect with Kevin

Website: whenwewalkby.com // miraclemessages.org
IG: kevinfadler

Andrew Nemr: Alright, welcome everyone to this episode of Talking Notes. I am very excited to have this episode, a special guest, very special guest, dear friend of mine Kevin Adler. We met during a crossover stint at the Ted Residency and ever since I've been just kind of a little enamored with the work that you do, frankly. Kevin works in the field of working with our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness, and has a very unique approach which I'll just let him let him dive into. But first, how are you?

Kevin Adler: I'm doing well. It's really good to be with you, Andrew. As a dear friend, as you know, I managed to find love amid the pandemic, and we got our our wedding coming up next year, so I have a lot to be grateful for. You know, the heart of our work is around the power of relationship, and so it's apropos that I feel like finding a relationship that means so much to me, and then reconnecting with old friends, and and other folks that are really like family to me, so I'm doing well on the whole. I just got over my second bout of COVID.

AN: Oh man it's still present

KA: Yeah, still present, but I'm doing really well, and yeah I know talk about all sorts of things under the sun, but my sincere condolences again to you on loss of your dad this past March.

AN: Thank you. Very much appreciate that. So for the listeners because there's we have common context, but can you tell us a little bit just kind of top level of what Miracle Messages is about, I think more, why? Why miracle messages?

KA: Great you always have the ability to ask your question with an inflection in your voice. I'm like yeah I should bear my soul to this human being. Yes, why, you know great question. So a little bit of background context for folks who maybe we're meeting for the first time, my name is Kevin Adler, and I'm the founder of a nonprofit that I started about a decade ago now, December 2014, so nine years ago in honor of my uncle who had been living on and off the streets of Santa Cruz for about 30 years. We're an organization, we help people experiencing homelessness rebuild their social support systems and their financial security. So what that looks like is we offer three programs. There's family and friend reunification programs. So a person is experiencing homelessness, many individuals on the street especially unsheltered folk, folks at shelters, folks in transitional housing, it may be years or decades since they last connected with loved ones. And we find that many of the reasons for being disconnected don't have to do with not wanting to connect. It has more to do with digital literacy, access you lose a phone, phone numbers change, addresses change, you don't have access to the Internet to look people up. There's bureaucratic barriers, so shelters right now under HIPAA regulations can't confirm or deny whether someone's at a facility so you end up with missing person flyers on the bulletin boards. “Have you seen this person, come home, dad and mom love you.” Right? But the biggest barrier of all by far is the emotional barriers, shame, self loathing, not wanting to be a burden, and the work that we do says that, no, you're not a burden and in fact homelessness is not your fault, no one deserves to be poor, and no one deserves to be unsheltered. We've started with our family friend reunification program. We also know for some people, family could be part of the problem, not part of the solution. And our theory of change says that relational poverty is a form of poverty, so how do you address relational poverty of families and part of the solution? That's where we've launched our phone buddy program. That's called miracle friends. What we do is we have volunteers all around the world that commit 30 minutes a week for phone calls and text messages. It's kind of a Big Brothers Big Sisters for unhoused neighbors. So we have hundreds of people having those phone calls, and we have a weekly community chat, mentoring and call logs, and it's just a a great way to actually be in a relationship with an unhoused neighbor. Then our third program, which they all are interconnected, is our basic income program and the basic premise, I know we'll talk more about it, is that when a person is in relationship with an unhoused neighbor and through our phone buddy program you start building trust you start building a sense of your on this journey together. You believe in each other, and it's very hard to see someone like – imagine if we were in this situation as such good friends as we are Andrew, and if I didn't know where I was going to get a warm meal that night, or I was missing you know enough money to fill up my car with gas so I could get back to work on Monday – you'd want to do something. That's what friends do. You’d want to show up and vice versa. We were just hearing from our volunteers, “Hey, you know my friend is struggling, can I help them?” So we decided to raise initially $50,000, paid 14 individuals in our phone buddy program to get $500 a month for six months, and we within six months 2/3 of those individuals who were unhoused were able to secure housing. So now we've expanded that into a $2.1 million basic income randomized controlled trial built off our phone buddy program working with google.org, USC. But that's the work of our organization is to embrace unhoused neighbors not as problems to be solved but as people to be loved, because when people are loved problems get solved.

AN: That's amazing. Congratulations on the expansion, by the way. I was very well familiar with the miracle money initial trial but that's great news that it's flourishing as much as it is.

KA: Yeah, I was a skeptic at first, going in. I was like first, I don't want to do more harm than good, right? There's biases and questions I had, and there's some that are rightfully so you know. Some individuals may need a hospital bed or may need severe mental health support before they're in a spot to be given you know $500, no questions asked, every month. But I also was just skeptical that $500 or in our current pilot $750, that that would move the needle. You see billions of dollars being spent in some cities, and the issue of homelessness doesn't seem to move much one way or another year to year. I became a believer when I realized and saw that our unhoused neighbors were using the money better than we could have used it for them. So seeing is believing, but it's been very exciting to share the results from our initial pilot, and really to do a kind of gold standard evaluation through a randomized controlled trial for this next one.

AN: That's great. There are a couple things that always struck me, as we've had conversations over the years and now your book is coming out, which is phenomenal called When We Walk By, and there's a language element to the work that you do. A lot of my work is in oral traditions and the way that languages and practices build up in communities and reinforce communal formation – how we become who we become – could you talk to me about some of that shift.

KA: I feel like I should just stand on my tippy toes and let my shirt…

AN: Everyone is someone's somebody. That was the first line, right?

KA: It really was, and it's such a great question, because it gets to the heart of our hearts, our hearts and minds and how they're formed. When you see a person experiencing homelessness as a problem it's hard to think outside the box creatively on what, how we show up for each other as humans in all facets. If you've defined a human being by what they're lacking in terms of one physical need. We would never look at each other and housed people. We're housed, it's such a ridiculous identifier and we're grateful to be housed. It is an incredible blessing. But you've taken the mother with single mother with child maybe escaping a domestic violence situation. We’ve taken the 20 something foster care youth who is aging out of the system, because one out of every 3 foster care youth who age out of foster care by the time they're 24 experience homelessness. You're taking person who is a returning citizen from incarceration, because there's not much exit planning, and sometimes your just dropped off at the greyhound station. And you're taking loved ones, LGBTQ youth who are escaping unsafe household, someone with severe mental health issues, substance abuse, job loss, loop’em all and say that's the homeless. I mean of course there's not going to be progress made, at some level, of course it's just not a monolith. I think part of it is there there's a programmatic, a kind of efficacious perspective of why understanding and language is important to know who are we talking about who are we trying to serve. But I think it goes deeper than that, and I think your question touched on that. I think it goes to even the way I put it with my shirt, if you're going back to your college days, or early you know in your 20s, or whatever age you are, and you're single and you're meeting people, maybe you go on an online date, you meet someone at a coffee shop, whatever, however you meet people nowadays. If you want to immediately activate your brain to look at that person with a deep level of respect and dignity that they deserve, you probably need to look at them and say they come from somewhere and they're going somewhere. There's someone's daughter. That's someone's son. That's someone's granddaughter. Indigenous tradition inform us to look seven generations hence and seven generation prior. There's a richness to that. I don't think we can reclaim a language of homelessness. I don't think we can reclaim, like oh let's take away the stigma of what it means to be homeless, that's a hard long process. It's worth fighting. But I think a shortcut, a mental circuit shortcut, is to say that’s someone's son, that’s someone's daughter, that's a fuller expression. Fundamentally, it's not about being language police or thought police. I get questions like what the proper term, what should I say? Some people prefer “people experiencing homelessness” “unhoused neighbor” “unhoused person.” Some people say “I'm homeless. I want to own that identity, I'm going through it.” I think it's just much more important to have a more nuanced conversation and to pause and reflect what words we use and why we use them, and why we maybe choose one way or another.

AN: There's an aspect to your work that is confronting for me in terms of – I lived in New York City for a very long time and anyone who's spent time in Manhattan particularly will have confronted neighbors who are unhoused. It took me a very long time to shift my own kind of interaction, initial interaction, from “I don't have anything to give and I'll just walk by more quickly,” to there were times where I – it's like a little bit of courage comes up – and I walk up to someone I say, “I don't have money but is there something I can get you.” And there were times that, “Don't worry about it, you're cool, just keep going.” I was like, wow that's a possible interaction? There's like a very personal humanity that your work brings up around folks who, if I'm not connected with them in a personal way, I see more as a stranger, somebody distant from me. And the more I've had a chance to read an advanced copy of your book and the more I continue to hear your stories, there is this how do we honor this person. Was that a shift for you? Or was that something that was kind of always there and has grown?

KA: Oh, for me personally, yeah that was a huge shift. I think what was not a shift and what was there from early, is a desire to see people and embrace people as an extension of my family.

AN: That’s beautiful dude.

KA: And I appreciate it and I think it's probably a more commonplace than not. I think it just gets really deeply buried. And what I've learned is especially – I mean I'm a straight, white, tall, Christian, male, American. I have tremendous privileges in this society and most others to walk and comport myself in public freely, to never really feel concerns of my safety, trust…not everyone has, most people don't have those privileges, those advantages. It doesn't mean they're not worth striving for more beloved community for all of us to experience that level of familial ties. So I think because of how I was raised, my parents, my values, having some privileges, that enabled me to look at the world as kinfolk. That's always been my mindset is to feel like I never learned the word stranger and try to live my life accordingly. That's my only thing I want my epitaph someday. But with our unhoused neighbors it was evident to me, self aware as I could be, a late 20 year old at the time, that that's not how I was treating people. I was walking by them. When I walk by, when we walk by, right. I remember the first person I met – prior to miracle messages I spent a year just listening to stories, just having conversation. I know you and I both, I think one thing we connected on is just the power of storytelling but in forms that sometimes aren't obvious. I mean through your tap dancing communicating, telling a story, through movement. I started by having unhoused individuals volunteered to wear GoPro cameras around their chests and narrate their experience of what life is like on the street. I just walked by you, you're still here, what's it like to be you? I mean, those insights that I heard in those clips form the basis of this work. One clip I heard someone say, “I never realized I was homeless when I lost my housing only when I lost my family and friends.” Key insight. What I share about, I think in the last chapter, I opened the last chapter of the book by sharing this story where each of us as co-authors share an anecdote of a time that we essentially walked by. The first person I met who wore the camera, as I approached this individual, I found myself instinctively reach my hand into my pocket and grab my keys as a weapon – to almost hold the keys, as if I needed to lunge or protect or if they were gonna…

AN: Like a just in case.

KA: Just in case, and this is a person who I got connected to through mutual friend, meeting in broad daylight, in public, taking this time out of his day for my half-brained project wearing a camera. So that's where I started. And it's a journey that continues, and I don't think we should – you know there's no leprosy island where everyone who doesn't have everything exactly right we should be sending. As a society we need to just have honest conversations, courageous conversations, so we absolutely…I started out very similar to I think where a lot of people are, but there was a pent up desire to embrace people and family that I've felt throughout my life.

AN: That's a beautiful thing to…just that desire strikes me as a beautiful thing. There seems to be a wall that I've hit in my life around that kind of community, that is family beyond family, right. In the tradition of faith it would be like the family of God, right. The gathering of people imbued with the same kind of spirit that allows for a kind of flourishing that distance and isolation and othering and the stranger idea inevitably prevents. It's hard to trust somebody that you don't know. It's also very vulnerable to be known for some. What was it like to get to know and to also become known by the the neighbors that you have come to form relationships with?

KA: Can I just ask you? I sit with that for a moment, but I want to ask what was the wall that you feel like you've hit recently on opening up and having that kind of interaction?

AN: Oh yeah, so I think the wall for me and part of my context is son of immigrants. So there's…with coming into…there's an in and out kind of feeling when…well at least for me personally and for, from what I've understood for immigrants in general, that we are strangers in somebody else's house. And for me, it was a little bit multiplied by of being grafted into the tap dance community which is primarily African American. And there were a couple of instances in my life where relationships were cut or fractured around things that I couldn't change.

KA: Part of your identity.

AN: Part of my identity, right. It's like, no matter what I did, no matter how close I felt I was, there was always something that could be used to kick me out or separate me from the larger family. Not necessarily a merit, but things like race or position, or I mean for me it wasn't gender, but it might be, right and those are those are things you can't necessarily do something to change. I mean you might want to and you might try it but there are physical attributes. So the wall for me has been learning to be at home in a place where I'm predisposed not to feel at home, and then trying to find where the culture of that place, like the group of people that I find myself with, is not predisposed to like – this isn't working so we separate. It's this isn't working, so let's get closer, let's try and figure this out, because I think the separation, it's an easy thing it's an easy thing to land on. And sometimes it might be necessary, but I don't think it's as necessary as it often happens, but I'm still working that out.

KA: Thank you for sharing that and it gives me a lot more context in your question, very helpful. I think, where I can relate to you…I know and we have talked about this within the tap dance communities some of the other communities that you occupy and I know that's a painful thing right like to feel this part of your identity that you feel so connected to and then always feel like a stranger in a strange land in how you're received. I think the two things I'd say to that, one, that so many of us have that experience of all shapes, sizes, colors, gender, sexual orientation, in some settings, whether it's for you at home with your family, or another person with their school that they're attending, or another person the hobby or their profession, we're all outsiders, and in some ways being outsiders is what makes us you know fully human. There's no inside track to the human experience. We're all figuring it out and going through it. And what I'd share personally that I resonate with is when I started this work, Andrew, I felt like a total total fraud coming into it. Because I have an uncle who's experiencing homelessness, but we had dinner together for Thanksgiving, and he remembered every birthday and we dropped him off at the greyhound station, and then we wouldn't hear from him for six months, and that was my life with Uncle Mark. It was joyous, I absolutely loved the guy, and he passed away when I was 19 years old and in college. So, what business did I have doing anything about homelessness? I felt like a fraud, also, not only because of my lack of experience on the issue, or long standing – I wasn't volunteering at soup kitchens, I wasn't doing other service orientation stuff – more interested in education, working with young people. I also, full disclosure, and I share this pretty openly, I never thought of and still don't think of, homelessness as my primary issue. I care about it, and obviously I care a lot more now than I did ten years ago, but I thought well gosh education, human rights, or democracy these are all issues that really made…environment…but what I realized it is not homelessness that I care about, it's the intrinsic value of each person and the interconnectedness of us all. And it just so happened that I'm living 2023 San Francisco Bay area, a person who has stability and occupied spaces that are privileged spaces, you know a lot of friends in tech and Silicon Valley and I worked in the education tech space for a while. So I have enough safety and foundation to be able to look more broadly and my heart has called me towards that, and these neighbors experiencing homelessness are not seen or talked about or embraced as people to be loved. They're not seen as invaluable. They're not seen as precious. They're not seen as interconnected. If anything it’s, how do we get them out of here, what's the quickest you know exit plan. So what I've come to realize is that first, each movement, it requires probably orators, requires advocate, it requires artists, that requires everyone bringing their best selves. And my best self I would never be the person who's always going to be showing up at the soup kitchen every Sunday. that that's not my role. My role is, I see people of certain way, with tremendous trust and love and respect, and I want to develop platforms that allow people to come together, realize their common humanity, and then do great things that I probably would never do on my own on my own devices, like volunteer to be a phone buddy, to be a digital detective. So what I've come to realize as I think about what even what you shared, I may not be the purest of the movement. I may not be the epitome the poster child, I have no lived experience of homelessness, it wasn't my familiarity. I'm not in the demographics of black and brown people, who are disproportionately experiencing homelessness and negative interactions with the criminal justice system, and affordable housing and health disparities, and all these other intersectional issues that lead to homelessness. But I'm able to do it my way, to the best of my ability, and probably reach an audience and a community and a sphere of influence, that maybe other folks couldn't reach. So, I've learned to celebrate that distinction rather than bemoan that diversity, that lack of uniformity.

AN: That's really cool. Was there…I'm curious, because that identification of the cross section of your particular skill set, and your position, and the voice that you have, for the work that you're doing. Like identifying that almost seems to bring a level of comfort and ease as I hear you describe it. Was there something or a moment that brought you to that realization that like, this is why this, for me, now?

KA: I don't know if this is like the authoritative ultimate answer here, but this is what comes to mind, I'll just riff with you, because that's what I like doing with you. Right after we started with a wearable cameras we got some media coverage. It was in the SF chronicle, and then it was in BBC and just started getting emailed and interviewed and it was kind of blown up. We had this publication, I wouldn't even say their name because they don't even need anymore press or attention, they no longer exist, but at the time it was kind of like the yellow journalism of Silicon Valley. It was kind of like the insiders talk of like oh you know…and they wrote this article just lambasting me in this project saying like I think it was like “tech workers just leave the homeless alone.” I think this was not far after horrific things like bum fights if you remember that, where people would video, they say here's $100 fight this person and the winner of the fight just like super exploitation of voyeuristic. So, there was already a little bit in the zeitgeist like a hesitancy towards anything related to video. I think we've seen a lot of higher quality stuff, though there's still a critique from, would you still be doing this with the cameras off, that's another story. But we have this person who worked at this yellow journalism Silicon Valley and he's like just leave him alone, what are you doing, do-gooder Kevin Adler doing this, and tech worker. I thought to myself…and I was like…have you ever heard the expression “Dogs don't bark at parked cars”?

AN: Yes!

KA: If you are moving, if you are doing stuff in this world, you're going somewhere you're gonna have people bark at you. I just, in that moment I was like, would I allow some random person who doesn't know me, doesn't know the work we're doing, to dissuade me or to throw me off the impact that I know we can have? Which I'm only that confident because I'm rooting it in the conversations I'm having with the people I care about, which is our unhoused neighbors, and their families, and our volunteers, and they're telling me this makes a difference, this matters to me, in fact this is what I need you to do. And every program we've developed from the reunion services, to the phone buddy, to the basic income, to now even writing the book, and spending the time on the book. It's all driven by a desire to honor the stories of our unhoused neighbors and contextualize them, make sure that those aren't lost as sound bites, but they actually matter and live and breathe. So it was just regaining perspective of whose voices matter and who do I want to hear. That's my trick. It's easier said than done, but that's what I've tried to do.

AN: I think it's a beautiful thing, and there's something about being a representative right or working on behalf of people that you love and care for that…I feel like to do that well is a special gift. Because we live in a society often where representatives don't necessarily love and care for the people that they represent. And it can in some situations be frankly quite blatant and quite exploitative. I think to one, find yourself in that situation, and also to work to do that well – because it takes particular choices and setting, well and having a desire to do that, frankly need like – warrants pointing out. If you get a bad review, you get a bad review because that happens.

KA: That's part of the process, you know and I think I was just trying to look up the the exact language so…have you ever seen The Last Black Man in San Francisco?

AN: No…

KA: Oh, you have to see it. It's really fabulous. I won't ruin the film, but basically the thing I'll share, kind of to get to the point, the end of this movie, I think Jonathan Majors, I believe is the the main character’s played by Jonathan Majors and he has this incredibly turbulent tumultuous in some ways horrible relationship with with the city that he's born and raised in about losing a home, toxic sludge being dumped. There's kind of dystopian, it's kind of like futuristic but also way too familiar, and based in San Francisco trying to hold on to a family member’s house that's going to be lost and wanting to say, “This is where we grew up. This is our house.” The whole movie is just, it's heartbreaking, because this person who has clearly invested in and spent a ton of time in this community, his family has for generation is being further and further marginalized. And the last line of the film is something like, where he's on a bus and he overhears these two young people talking and complaining about San Francisco, and just you know “the weather stinks” and “it's so hilly” “food's not good” all the things. He's listening and he kind of leans in, he's like, “Hey!'“ and they kind of look at him and he says, “You have to love it before you can hate.”

AN: That's amazing!

KA: Yeah one of them is like, who's this weirdo, like, leave me alone but one of them is like, woooh. What I love about that moment is there's a lot of work to be done on the issue of homelessness, there's a lot of need. And there's a lot to hate about the status quo, deservedly so, that's not acceptable. But I think in order to fight the fight and sustain the fight you have to truly love, not the system, but the people. The people that you're trying to serve. If you don't love them I don't think you can endure in all the setbacks and pushbacks so whatever that is, tap dancing, homelessness, people, cultures, I think you find your north star, what you love, and then you can you deal with all the hate, and there's a lot to hate, there's a lot to critique, but I think it starts with a baseline of love, and so that's one of my favorite ones.

AN: That's beautiful, there's a C.S. Lewis quote that has come across my eyes over the past couple of days says something like, “If you love deeply, you're going to get hurt badly, but it's still worth it.”

KA: Still worth it. To riff with you it reminds me of great theologian and really the pastor to many of the civil rights leaders Howard Thurman and one of his great quotes, who created the first I think interracial church, one of the first interracial churches in the country, I think it’s the Peoples Church in San Francisco [CORRECTION: The Fellowship Church]. He said, “Don't ask the world what is it needs, ask what makes you come alive, because the world needs people who have come alive.” So similar concept, I think is it's finding that deep love, as I've said before in this work, it's less of I have an idea but more, an idea has me. So much so that you can't imagine walking away because we wouldn't, you couldn't, it would be like walking away from a part of yourself, your identity.

AN: That’s very cool. There's a quote…so I spent about a year or two trying to define the word love because someone had asked me what love meant and I didn't have a definition for it. I had no words. I thought I had a fairly good experience of it from from my family, thankfully, but no words. One of the one of the failures of being a tap dancer is that they don't teach you how to talk, they teach you how to dance. My words came later in life in terms of training and articulation and those kinds of things. But it it took me a very long time to find a definition that felt encompassing and it actually came from a philosophy professor from USC, Dallas Willard and his definition was to love, so it’s a verb automatically, is to will the good of the beloved. Right away one might be thrust to figure out, how do we know what's good? Then you have to know the beloved. So there's a sense of knowledge, and knowledge not in terms of stats necessarily, but in terms of interaction. I know you to be a thoughtful person because I've spent time in seeing you and been with you as a thoughtful person. I think there's wonder for me and one of the reasons I find myself continually attracted to the work that you do with miracle messages is that it feels fueled by this idea. It ends up being reciprocal not by design but by the nature of love that the the phone buddies enjoy the fact that they're being a buddy. It's not a drudgery, it's they're getting to know a person and that brings something out in them.

AN: Well said, and great quote. I think sometimes it's you know I mean Jesus you know had no, spent relatively little time proclaiming the need for us to love our friends. Right? That wasn't, it wasn't like, you know Andrew…you know like, I mean you know, love thy neighbor as thyself, and there's you know there’s lines, but like the much harder work it's like OK, how do I love that which feels like it doesn't love me? Where I am not it's beloved? In the homelessness space once you're, once you have I think stepped into it, and immerse yourself, and you realize the raw deal that our neighbors experiencing homelessness are getting – they are our friends, right. They they are neighbors. They are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters our uncles. What is harder once you're in it, is to then go back and say I'm going to love housed people, too. With the same but sometimes our pushback. So the book I wrote, When We Walked By, it's a book on homelessness, but it's really a book on how us, as house people, and our relationship not only with our unhoused neighbors but with our own humanity and what that relationship says about our humanity. Because I do think it's you know we say as a byline at our organization meet people where they're at, but not leave them there. We immediately think of that with our own unhoused neighbors, but we always say we have to remember that's for our donors, that's for the messages we get of critique, why are you spending money on these, and I think only through…You're not going to win everyone that way, it's not like trying to be naive, and but I think that's the only posture where you can really have maybe you even have love triumph. Just to build a community of people that different walks of life backgrounds. I love getting messages through miracle messages and I hope with the book, you know really encouraging people to use #whenwewalkby or to reach out, because I want to hear from people, not only who are like, “yes! yes! yes! yes!” but are like, “Really? Are you sure?” Like that is good. A lot of most powerful messages I received in my time in Miracle Messages was from someone who worked as an EMT and they said I have never thought of people experiencing homelessness as other than massive problems. I'm constantly being called picking people up. I see people overdose. I see, we take them to the hospital and they're using the emergency room as the waiting room. Then they're back on the street. It's the same person. I'm so cynical until I saw one of your videos and I was like, oh there's this other facet to the people I'm serving that I don't see. I just see them at some of the worst moments, or I see a very small subsection of people. So that to me is what it's all about. That gets me as excited, we say it as an organization, our mission, no one goes to homelessness alone which is really speaking to our unhoused neighbors and their experience, but equally important we say, and no one feels helpless on this issue. And that really speaks to us as housed individuals.

AN: There’s a sense with this particular issue, but I've found it in conversations with others in working on other things, that there's both the little bit of truth that every stereotype uses as its launching pad, and the potential overwhelm that an individual can feel when confronted with an issue that they think they can do nothing about. Oftentimes both serve to land at best cynicism, at worst contempt and anger, and I think those things to land back at Jesus…those things are things that he also says, “you know, maybe not that. Maybe let's look at something else. A different way to navigate those things that will naturally ultimately eat on us.”

KA: As rough and frustrating as it could be to have the occasional hate mail or angry person, I take that 10 times out of 10 over apathy. They care enough to fill up and complain. It's the folks where you get so inoculated from the status quo. In the videos that we started by with the wearable cameras, you'd see parents constantly walking by with their children and you’d see see children, every single child look, stare, point, tug, ask. Half the time the parent would scold the kid and pull them and they’d go, “bad dangerous, impolite,” and the other half the time they’d let the kid almost guide them to the person experiencing homelessness. I think, of those children, who is going to grow up to be a more trusting, open, adult and I think we can learn so much from children, and we've almost forgotten something in our humanity, that’s why I think Jesus loves kids so much. There's a reason for that.

AN: There's a wonderful idea about Jesus proposing that in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, which for some believers it's considered a quality of life that can be experienced here and now, we have to start as children. And that not only the beginner's mind idea, but also the ability to be led by a different spirit, not just the one that we already have. And in that way, literally become different kinds of people. Maybe the kind of the kind of person for whom walking towards is the natural output as opposed to walking by.

KA: Couldn't agree more, and I titled the book When We Walked By, rather than When We Walk By But Slow Down and Then Turn Around, it's When We Walk By because this is going to happen. You don't need to…it's gonna happen. It's inevitable. It's understanding that dynamic, understanding what's going on, understanding maybe why you felt unsafe or uncomfortable or chose to look past. Taking that pause thinking about it. The know most heartbreaking sign I've ever seen an unhoused person hold up. They were slot slouched down, it wasn't even held up, they were at an intersection. They're just sitting down kind of head in their hand, sign kind of abutting there their knees and sloped upwards. It read, very simply, “At least give me the finger.”

AN: Oh gosh.

KA: Imagine to get to that point where a middle finger in your face is preferred to what you have, which is being in ignored, being overlooked. At least acknowledge my humanity even if it's the most offensive, disrespectful way you could, because what's happening here is too hard for me. And when our unhoused neighbors want to volunteer or want to sign up to get reconnected but then they change their mind, the most common thing that I've heard multiple times is they say, “I can't, I feel dirty.” This internalized thing, not wanting to be a burden. I'm hoping folks, whether it's through listening to conversations like these…whether it's through getting involved in a local organization, volunteering as a phone buddy, with miracle friends, the digital detective, or taking a look at the book, When We Walk By, or sharing or feeding conversation, I just want to hear stories of folks that the time that maybe they've shown up for their unhoused neighbors also the times that they haven’t and in those times why and having these open honest conversation. But I really do think a lot of it comes down to just taking the time to be more fully human with each other and ourselves.

AN: So let me ask you this because I think this comes to mind. Do you think that there's a way for us to practice this in any situation so that come the time that we're confronted or see an unhoused neighbor that the first inclination is not to recoil?

KA: I think what I would say is I’d flip it on its head, and I'd say that may be an unanswerable question. But what is answerable is when you walk by and you engage or recoil, when you see a person experiencing homelessness visibly homeless on the streets unsheltered, I think whatever your reaction it's very important to take time to recognize that that's a person and that's one person of many people experiencing homelessness that you're not seeing. The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness are probably look a lot more like you and me. Meaning that they blend in. You wouldn't distinguish them. So it's not to say that someone who's unsheltered experiencing homelessness perhaps pan handling isn't deserving of all the love, support, resources, that we can offer but you know I have a lot of sympathy for the fact that people are in public. Would you talk to any random person that comes up to talk to you? Would you talk…there's trepidations…I think creating time and space to, whether it's through serving at a local partner site, through kitchens getting involved with a program like miracle friends where we have volunteers around the world who have weekly calls and texts with neighbors experiencing homelessness, watching videos airing on social media, being in conversation to the people who are experiencing homelessness who you would never think were experiencing homelessness. I think the point of that is we need to broaden our understanding of who we're talking about in this issue, because it's way too narrow right now. If we achieve that – if we say, well gosh actually there's probably friends of ours who have experienced homelessness, there's people in our lives, our family, loved ones, maybe still. Once we see that this is a homegrown issue and connected to us much more than we realize, I have faith in you as a person, to maybe think and react a little differently next time you see that person you're walking by.

AN: Thank you for that. We're kind of inching on time but I've been wanting to ask you a question that has nothing to do with your work for a very long time.

KA: Tennis? yoga? potluck? oh what are my favorite things?

AN: It's actually about World War II

KA: Oh perfect! I knew we were going to finish with this…

AN: And there's a connection here. My dad was a history buff. So I grew up…the running joke with the Lebanese is that if you're in Lebanon and you see two cats playing backgammon on the street, their conversation is geopolitics. That’s the deal, so I grew up in a family where dinner conversation was training me on situational awareness and global politics. We were in a gathering, and there was a speaker, and you asked the speaker a question around – I don't know if you remember this or not – but it was it was around drawing a connection between the the kinds of conversations that are prominent today in public right – not necessarily the most constructive conversations – and World War 2 and your particular view of the arc of history from then until now. I was just curious where did that interest come from? and has that view or that arc continued to inform your journey?

KA: Well, I don't remember the exact context at that moment but that sounds like a really fun Kevin story there. So, what I do think about a lot as it relates to World War II and that I'm guessing is what I probably may have said…so my background prior to homelessness, prior to working in education tech, prior to even doing work as a social entrepreneur, I went to school and then grad school as a sociologist. My research was really focused on what's called social capital. Which is really the academic way of talking about relational poverty and these concepts that we're centering in the work. But social capital can be a very dense topic, but it's a very important topic, because it's basically a measure of the resource advantages and disadvantages that accrue based on the social norms and networks that you're part of. So, if you're embedded deeply in a community – the Ted Residency or the Ted Fellowship – and you have tons of people that you can call who are all levels of professional designers and thought leaders on this, and this and that, there's a real benefit to that. That helps you substantively in your professional goals and your aspiration. There's also types of social capital where it can be based on a community level. So my research was really looking at how disasters and share trauma can either catalyze social capital to bring people together, or can tear people apart, and make people feel disconnected. I did research on floods, earthquakes, and war, and in World War II in the aftermath of World War II…have you have you heard the phrase “Greatest Generation”?

AN: Yeah.

KA: You've heard of this. So that's referred to as folks who were born pre-war years, and served in the war, and came back, and built…the reason that in a social capital sense why that is considered the greatest generation is those levels of social capital were about the highest we had seen to date. If you control for age, demographics, all other walks of life, income, geography, something about our grandparents generation was more trusting, more civically engaged, more philanthropic, more norms of reciprocity, more altruistic, than the baby boomers who came after who were I guess was ‘46 to ‘64, I think the baby boomer generation, and the millennials, and Gen Z Gen X, Gen. Z. So I wanted to understand in my research around social capital, why is it that a war, World War II, as this catalyst, what is it about the events happening at that time that led one group of people to forever feel more connected more trusting, more skillful, capitally rich, than the next group, and the next group. My my findings and what I came to – so this is all based like Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone that's kind of the canonical work around social capital in the United States. If you go back a little further, Pierre Bourdieu is really one of the originators of social capital and kind of French sociologist. James Coleman in the education setting. But Putnam was really talking about the rise and fall of social capital and he describes generational change as the primary attribute why social capital shifts. But I was like that's B.S., what is it about one generation that leads to this versus another, and basically what I found was that there's something about the shared trauma, something about the experience. World War II, as period of relative uniformity in the country, relative coherence. You had Rosie the Riveter. You had Boy Scouts scrap metal drives. You have blue and gold stars on households identifying whether they had lost service member. And then you contrast a mass mobile mobilization war effort that is seen as fighting a good and important fight with Vietnam era. My dad fought in Vietnam, and that was a war characterized by the draft deferment, a very unpopular war, waged primarily by more predominantly black and brown individuals, low income individuals, people who didn't have the same educational opportunities. And then there's also you know a lot of progress in the civil rights in the 1960s but there was a lot of unrest and divisiveness. And it's not to say that's not positive writ large, but in a social capital sense there was something about that formative experience of a World War II versus a Vietnam ‘60s that led social capital one way or another. Long story short, my original, my first book is on how a 500 year flood in Cedar Rapids, IA, that I studied can either lead to social capital…what are the conditions for social capital to be created, people to feel connected years, decades, later? And what are the conditions that would happen for some people to feel disillusioned, that the community didn't show up, the government didn't respond, they were left out to dry. To finally connect it back to this work, I have come to think of homelessness in the United states as highly individualized trauma. Unlike a flood or an earthquake or even a war, you have someone who's probably gone through a really traumatic experience – job loss, death in the family, getting kicked out, substance abuse issue, health issues – but you don't see it. You don't know it. It's not shared. It's not like, oh I just got through getting kicked out by my mom, too. And as a result, there's very little empathy and compassion that we afford that we almost instinctively conjure in the event of the Maui wildfire. Which was very devastating. Or few years ago, the massive explosion in Beirut, that killed so many people – just tremendous outpouring initially. It's called the emergence of the therapeutic community. It's always short lived…it never…it doesn't sustain. Anyway, that was my interest, that's my primary interest in World War II. What were the qualities, so we don't need to wage war as a way of building meaning, and togetherness, and cohesion, but we can understand what that is, and maybe understand those variables, and work to build it in other ways.

AN: That's fascinating. It would be a sad state to say that we would have to have a war in order to get that output.

KA: There's literally a book called War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. It's talking about this very idea you just put forward – In terms of economic output and social cohesion, for people who you're not at war against.

AN: Right! That's kind of the thing about war, right?

KA: I mean you know there's a joke that I sometimes heard in my social capital circles which is something along the lines like the best thing for social capital would be an alien invasion or a meteor that's going to hit God forbid. Let's all bond together if we have no other choice to unify against. I'm sure there's still be, “Like, well, you look kind of Martian to me, man…”

AN: I mean gosh, always…I think there's…until the inner landscape is shifted, I think there's the potential for you know the for the individual spirit to override the environmental influences is always there.

KA: 100%. It’s what Gerard described as scapegoating. Every society gotta have a scapegoat. Got someone you put the blame on. You know, Jesus was a scapegoat. Jews have been scapegoated. It’s a group that you can pull out one or two characteristics, magnify it, say this is cause of our problems, and we just need to rid, and then you unify against it. Social capital can be really rich in gangs, criminal networks. So it's not like all we just need is more social capital. But what we what we talk about is the importance of…it's called the strength of weak ties…so it's relationships with people of different walks of life. There's research that's just come out in the last couple of months from Raj Chetty and his team at Harvard, where they basically found that your strength of your weak ties and your social capital how many people you're connected to on Facebook is actually more of an indicator of your socioeconomic status, your professional opportunities, kind of all these great life outcomes, than even zip code. You talk about the zip code determining where you go to school, how much money you make, what life you live…social capital, relationships. So if you don't have nurturing relationships, or you lost that, or you didn't have it to begin with, it could be incredibly devastating and difficult to overcome something like homelessness, or even if you do get off the streets to then stay off the streets, and that's really why you know the work we do around relational poverty I think is so important. I know that was a bit of a detour and we talked about World War II…

AN: That's great man. Thank you for humoring that question. There aren't a lot of folks that you can do a deep dive on the war with in my generation, or at least in my connections.

KA: Well, it sounds like at your dinner table that that was a thing. And given the time that you grew up it was necessary. War was at the doorstep.

AN: Thankfully, I was born outside of Lebanon, I'm a function of a young newlywed couple who fled a civil war. The idea, little things come up, and when you talk about some of the experiences that you recount from the neighbors that you've worked with in your book…You talk about the experience on the street of heightened awareness and having to be…there's a particular exposure and energy expense to that, alone. My dad particularly trained me in situational awareness from when I was a kid. And now that's something…there's a little bit more conversation around it happening now – that maybe just in the circles I'm in, I'm a little privy to. You don't sit in the middle of the movie theater. You know where the exits are when you first walk into a room. I learned those things when I was seven and eight years old and there's a particular kind of awareness that comes from that. And I think that is a differentiator between someone who lives in that kind of mode and someone who assumes that a movie theater is a safe place, or you don't have to worry about leaving every room that you enter into, because nothing's ever going to happen. So it's interesting in terms of the long arc of things and thinking about for unhoused neighbors, what's the longer arc that has landed them in a particular situation? What's the story of the person? That for me I think, opens us up a little bit just say, if somebody's looking at me, “that's that's a little quirky, are you OK?” Because I don't present as someone who would have been trained like that or would be concerned with those things. And same for an unhoused neighbor that might not present as being somebody who's being challenged that way.

KA: I'll just close by saying, I maybe a couple times a year, get messages from friends of mine who I'm consider friends or at least acquaintances, will say, “Hey, love the work you're doing, thanks for doing it. Don't tell anyone, but I too experienced homelessness. I growing up, my mom, we slept on the neighbor’s couches. We doubled up and tripled up. Or when I started my first business, or when I was going to school and didn't get my student loan in time. And it's almost always accompanied by a “keep up the good work” and “please don't tell anyone.” I feel like as a society my hope is, that we can reconcile those two things. In order to do this work, we have to have more awareness and acceptance. That one out of every two Americans is a paycheck away from not being able to pay rent. And 47% of people self report not knowing where they’d get $400 for an unexpected emergency. So, with numbers like that, it's actually surprising that there's not 10s of millions of people that are homeless. Why aren't there more people experiencing homelessness? We think family, friends, community, church, synagogue, informal economy, doubling up, tripling up, that's making a difference for 10s of millions of people in this country right now from falling over the edge into homelessness. So, given that, I think it’s all the more important for those who are or have experienced homelessness to show humanity to them, and because, “But for the grace of God go I.”

AN: Thank you. This has been an awesome conversation. We'll have the website and all the things in the to show notes, and descriptions as this thing goes. But is there a place that you would point people to just as they're listening if they feel something come up in them, and they're like, “OK I want to do something. Where do I start?”

KA: Great. Well whenwewalkby.com will be live by the time that this conversation is published, so whenwewalkby.com is a great place. And from there, you can you follow on social media, you can reach out, you can learn more about the work of miracle messages, and other terrific nonprofits that you can volunteer, get involved. So yeah, I think that would be a good place to start, going to whenwewalkby.com or miraclemessages.org, and reaching out and saying “hi!” don't be a stranger.

AN: Well, thank you, Kevin for taking the time and just a wonderful time to catch up with you…

KA: What a great excuse! I need to…jeez I'm going to anytime I want to catch up with a friend, I'm just going to say, “Hey, I have a podcast.”

AN: Yeah, exactly.

KA: I miss you…

AN: This is how I'm reconnecting with the weak ties in my life.

KA: Your playing in 3D chess and I'm just like Tick Tack Toe, man.

AN: We're just we're trying to figure it out.

KA: Teach me your ways, Andrew, teach me your ways.

AN: Gosh. We'll trade, how's that…that's fair.

KA: That sounds good, we’ll reciprocate. Well, great to see you man, and let's be in touch, OK?

AN: You got it.

KA: Take care brother, bye.

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The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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