By: Carol Hollowell
Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.
No one I’ve ever known wakes up one morning and decides to become homeless. Rather, life happens. Sometimes it crashes down in the form of a catastrophic event, like the loss of a job. In other instances, it evolves through time rooted in the deep crevasses of intergenerational poverty. Most often whatever the trigger, the condition of homelessness cannot be considered any human being’s fate, any more than our good fortune can be thought of ours.
Consider my dear friend, Ray, who is the man responsible for my involvement with people who are homeless. I passed Ray many times on my way to work in 2014. There this old man would sit in his wheelchair behind the St. George library. The image of this guy with long greasy gray hair aswirl, clothes shredded and filthy, slumped over asleep in his chair followed me through my days as Volunteer Director at the Southwest Utah 5 County Organization. Ray was never far from the center of my attention.
Finally, one cold fall morning, my curiosity won out over my need to get to work. I stopped to talk to him, whose name I learned was Ray. I asked what had happened to cause him to end up in a wheelchair, which I could see needed repair, sleeping behind the library. His answer was as devastatingly simple as it was profoundly shattering. Five years earlier, he’d lost his wallet. Read that sentence again. He lost his wallet. His wallet contained his ID, and what little money he had at his disposal. From there destiny took over, and he ended up homeless, without the resources to rectify his deteriorating circumstances.
I didn’t think twice. I didn’t imagine how stacked the odds were against him. I didn’t turn away from Ray’s disheveled appearance despite my stomach rebelling. I couldn’t possibly imagine that I was altering the course of my life as I felt determined to change his. Instead, I loaded Ray into my car and transported him to my office where I introduced him to my coworkers. “We need to help Ray find a home,” I told them, and the three of us set to work. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We were just being kind to another human being.
What I learned from my encounter with Ray changed me. It lit a fire in me, one of a fervent belief that homelessness is not inevitable, nor is it unsolvable. It showed me that by being kind, by listening, by seeing through to the individual wrapped in that rough outer shell, we can solve homelessness. We can solve it one individual, one step at a time.
Ray was my Switchpoint. I became his.
At that time, not many people outside of retired railroad men and hobby model railroaders knew what a Switchpoint was. Now, Switchpoint is burgeoning as the rallying cry for how we can, and must behave when we see someone in need. A switch point is a mechanism on a train track that with a turn sends the train in a completely different direction. With the slightest of adjustments, a train, or a life, takes off headed towards a new tomorrow.
In Summer 2014, my staff as well as a few volunteers opened Switchpoint Community Resource Center in St. George, Utah. We believed that we could help people, and we have. We knew then and now that we must begin by listening. We must listen to what people tell us about their lives. We must listen to them describe what life was like before they became homeless, and what they dream of becoming again.
During our growth, we began to recognize that solving homelessness wasn’t a convoluted and unsolvable mystery. Rather, there were certain commonalities which, when applied thoughtfully, created a framework for how to proceed. We call it the Switchpoint model. The culture of this model is deeply rooted in a strong foundation, the amalgam of 5 principles to which staff and volunteers and our clients adhere. Together, we make a Switchpoint.
We demonstrate Kindness in every interaction in which we engage.
We build Kinship by meeting everyone we encounter where they are.
We nurture Self Reliance. We model and reward the taking of responsibility for our actions. We do the work, and we accept accountability.
We establish Connection. We reach out. We don’t just join hands, we link arms. Together we can do more. We acknowledge challenges and celebrate victories no matter the size.
We honor Self-Worth. In all matters we respect the value of the other. Merging our values results in a breathing mass of human potential.
It truly takes all of us.
Together we are unstoppable.
Carol Hollowell is the Executive Director of the Switchpoint Community Resource Center.