The 2014 Homeless and Hungry Summit
Homelessness is complicated. It may be caused by addictions, mental health problems, a series of unfortunate events, or other reasons. I’m sure that there is at least a small minority of people who are homeless that deliberately choose to be homeless. Whatever the reason, people who have homes aren’t quite sure what to do about homelessness. More specifically, we don’t know how to respond to people who are homeless.
The thought process goes something like this: Should I give him money? What if he just uses the money to feed his addiction? Isn’t that just enabling him? It certainly isn’t helping him. Should I let him crash on my couch until he gets back on his feet? What if he just takes advantage of people financially, going from couch to couch for the rest of his life? That’s not right. Besides, he could be a murderer or a thief. I don’t want to endanger my family for this stranger.
We’ve all seen the cardboard signs. We haven’t all noticed the faces behind them. The 2014 Homeless and Hungry Summit was all about those faces. In fact, a handful of people without homes were in attendance. Some of them were easy to identify, by smell or appearance or behavior, while others looked and acted just like people with homes. The fact is, just as there are all sorts of people, there are also all sorts of people with no place to call home.
The Summit opens with a video of Jim, a man in a blue box. Yes, you read that right. You see, in downtown Orlando, there are blue boxes on the sidewalks, designated areas where the homeless are legally allowed to panhandle. “Just trying to make it. It’s like no one really cares,” Jim says. I don’t know Jim’s situation or background, but my guess is that he has some sort of disability or addiction. His speech is very slow and deliberate. He pauses for a long time to think. He says the most obvious things, like, “If I had a job right now, I’d be working.”
After the video, Tom Rebman takes the stage dressed in a tuxedo. He seems a bit overdressed, I think to myself. And he looks a lot thinner and more weary than the last time I saw him. Then, I notice Tom’s shoes. I’ll explain later… Rebman is my former coworker, a guy who throws his heart and soul into everything he does. During my short time as a middle school language arts teacher, he was the reading teacher two doors down the hall. We collaborated on a few projects with the students, including some volunteer efforts with the school food pantry.
“During the past month, Thomas Rebman has gotten in four fights, sold his plasma for bus fare and spent most nights sleeping on concrete or dirt in and around downtown Orlando. He has sifted through garbage, bathed in public bathrooms and lost 22 pounds — without trying. ‘It has been hell,’ admits the 53-year-old Orange County middle-school reading teacher. His grand social experiment to live as a homeless man for 30 days turned out to be far more stressful, humiliating and depressing than he envisioned.” (Orlando Sentinel)
The first portion of Rebman’s speech was all about cold, hard figures on laws, policies, procedures, and statistics regarding homelessness. The one that struck me the hardest was this: “Living on the streets costs our community more than housing [people who are homeless]. Each chronically homeless person in Central Florida costs the community roughly $31,000 a year! But, providing the chronically homeless with permanent housing and case managers to supervise them would run about $10,000 per person per year, saving taxpayers millions of dollars during the next decade!!”
This is Laura. She spent 24 hours with Tom on the streets. Her job was to count how many people who were homeless that she met, and of those people to track how many of them showed signs of being intoxicated or high on K2 or some other drug. She met 100+ and counted 12 that seemed to be on something. The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that there are a lot more “responsibly homeless” (Rebman) than people imagine. Rebman says, “The ones who are smoking K2 or drinking beer are the ones you notice,” not those who are doing their best to get back on their feet.
These are Rebman’s shoes. His “homeless” shoes that were brand new when he began his 30 days on the streets. He didn’t have any tape, so he used plastic grocery bags to hold keep them from completely falling apart. Tom explains, when it rains, your shoes get wet. If you take them off at night while you’re sleeping, they’d be gone in the morning. If you leave them on, your feet end up blistered and infected. As Rebman gives his presentation, there’s a man in the back row loudly interjecting commentary. He’s very excited to hear someone voicing his struggles. The man is visibly drunk.
Meanwhile, Rebman begins to take off his clothes. Yes, you read that right. Rebman explains how homeless people try to stay clean. They take showers at hotel pool areas or take “bird baths,” that is, cleaning up the best they can using the sink of a public restroom. And speaking of restrooms, this is a major problem for homeless people in the downtown area (where most homeless resources are). Businesses won’t allow them to use the restroom without making a purchase, and there are no public restrooms, except at the public library. “You hold it, or go to jail,” Rebman says.
Thankfully, Rebman has “street clothes” on under his tux. He goes and sits on a portion of the stage marked off with blue tape and talks about similar blue boxes in downtown Orlando, designated areas where the homeless are legally allowed to panhandle. The problem, Rebman says, is that the blue boxes are all in direct sunlight, you’re not allowed to sit down, and you must face away from the street. The man in the back row wholeheartedly agrees. People are fidgeting in their seats, finding it hard to focus with all the unexpected commentary. I wonder what, if anything, Rebman will do.
Rebman apologizes for dining and dashing and explains that after his 30 days homeless, he went back to each and every place to pay for his meals. The stunt could have landed him in jail, which in turn, could have resulted in his teaching license being revoked. “Been there, done that!” The guy in the back shouts. The interruptions are becoming unbearable. Rebman is visibly distracted, but pushes on, ignoring the outbursts. He explains where he slept, including an Orange County Public School. He discovered there were two other homeless people already there before him. Rebman even slept in someone’s back yard.
Finally, the teacher in Rebman comes out. He leaves the stage and asks the man’s name.
“I understand what you’re saying,” the man says.
“What’s your name?” Rebman repeats.
“My name is Will,” says the man.
“Will, I need you to do me a huge favor,” Rebman says.
“I have a dog that I’ve been homeless with for five years, and I pull him around on a buggy behind me on my bicycle. And see, you’re talking about things. You know, you don’t have a dog that you’re never going to give up on. There’s a whole lot of things…” Will says. This time, it’s Rebman’s turn to interrupt.
“Will, I need a favor,” Rebman says.
“I’ll leave,” replies Will.
“No, no, no, I don’t want you to leave.”
“I’m being a pain,” Will says. I’d have to agree with both of them at this point. I’d really like to hear Will’s story, but not until he’s sober. Like Rebman, I don’t want him to leave, either. If there’s any place a person who is homeless ought to be welcome, it’s at a Homeless and Hungry Summit. “When did I say you’re being a pain? I’m inviting you to the front row.”
I’ve seen Rebman do this before in the classroom. Students gets disruptive; you bring ’em up front.
Here’s Will in the front row. He apologizes to the lady next to him for “smelling offensive,” something which Tom explains is unavoidable in the heat of Florida with limited shower access. Although Will doesn’t stop interjecting comments, he does so with less frequency, and at a tolerable volume. Rebman tells a story to illustrate the stigma of homelessness, about a child who said to her mother, “Did you know there are 60 seconds in an minute and 60 minutes in an hour?” Rebman said, “And did you know there are 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year?” The mother picked her child up and practically ran away.
For more information, view the 2014 Homeless and Hungry Summit video above, and you can visit and “like” the Homeless and Hungry Facebook page.
This blog post would not be complete without addressing something rather unpleasant. There are some people who have taken it upon themselves to accuse Rebman of trying to get rich or draw attention to himself by being voluntarily homeless for 30 days. Not only this, but to dig into his past and make character judgments based on incomplete or inaccurate information. I completely understand what this feels like, because I went through something similar when I was doing the Kickstarter campaign for Alzheimer Chronicles (aka, Invisible Poets). The legalities of starting a 501C3 are incredibly difficult to navigate. Many non-profits begin under the umbrella of other more established non-profits until all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed with the IRS. At first, I reacted strongly and defensively, but my uncle sent me an email suggesting that focusing on negativity did more harm than good. I took his advice to heart, and let it be. I am not saying that Rebman is a saint or that he hasn’t made mistakes, but I am saying that if Rebman were stealing money that is legally contracted to various charities, then a little bit of homework and a phone call to the police would resolve the situation. So if you have a bone to pick with my buddy Tom, I suggest you spend less time trying crucify him in the public arena and more time providing hard evidence to people with the legal training to comprehend the situation. Otherwise, shut up and find something more productive to do.
Major takeaway: If nothing else, at least acknowledge and be kind to people who are homeless. Every person wants to feel like a person.
P.S. I did speak with Will, and I heard a bit of his story. The Summit was on a workday, and my boss was kind enough to give me time off to attend, but I didn’t want to take advantage of the situation by being gone longer than necessary. I got Will’s number, and Tim and I are going to meet him at Steak N Shake. So visit this site again soon, and you’ll get to hear the story of Will and his dog Sunny.