Homeless Organizing Academy
Building the skills and experience of homeless people to change their lives… and the system!
Many of our homeless members lack the basic computer and communication skills needed to secure employment and housing, as well as engage in effective community organizing. Because the same low-income neighborhoods currently experiencing massive gentrification have also endured decades of educational neglect and disinvestment, the people hit hardest by displacement are also the least able to compete for decent-paying jobs.
One of our primary goals at Picture the Homeless is to build power for homeless people – people of color, low income, women, immigrants, LGBTQ, disabled, and formerly incarcerated folks. At the same time as we build collective power for homeless people, we also focus on building individual skills and providing educational opportunities.
In 2009, with the help of one of our members, a former NYC public school teacher, we created the Homeless Organizing Academy (HOA) – a free series of weekly classes so that people experiencing homelessness can develop the skills they need to improve their situations, and become effective agents of social change.
Complex Problems, Multiple Strategies
The HOA utilizes several strategies to promote academic achievement and leadership development. Instructors are responsible for meeting the learning styles and maturity of our participants, and are available for one on one coaching. Our organizing staff tracks member progress. In addition to curriculum, instructors foster critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. All classes include instructional and practical components, allowing students to apply acquired skills. Computer class participants have the opportunity to join the computer lab class where they practice computer skills with the guidance of the instructor. Participants have tangible opportunities to develop their capacity as leaders through our campaigns, like representing their community and employing their communication skills by testifying at events like City Council hearings on the issues that matter to them. In addition to classes, participants can schedule individual time with instructors and staff, participate in organizational committees, campaigns, conferences, and trainings at affiliated institutions.
A Holistic Approach
While the Homeless Organizing Academy started with simple Political Education trainings on topics like public speaking and the legislative process, our members demanded more. They wanted to learn how to do internet research, and set up email addresses, and create resumes, and handle stressful situations in their shelters. Soon, the HOA had expanded to include Wellness classes (teaching things like proper nutrition, anger management, yoga) and Writing classes (focused on everything from cover letters to spoken word poetry).
There are no other programs in NYC that address these specific needs while being sensitive to the complex and dynamic context of homelessness, and are adaptable to varying levels of skill and literacy. In addition, our members have extremely limited access to education resources and technology. Turned away from internet cafes and limited to 45 minutes on the public library computers, this digital divide separating the housed and homeless amplifies the barrier preventing our membership from practicing newly acquired skills, adequately preparing for a job interview, and reaching their civic engagement potential. The HOA has evolved to be a holistic, supportive, and learning centered space, addressing the multiple issues preventing homeless adults from achieving their goals.
During the last year, HOA participants have been presented with many speaking and meeting facilitation opportunities. Picture the Homeless received an increasing number of speaking requests from media outlets, schools, and invitations to participate in public forums and roundtable discussions on homelessness. In addition to classes focused on meeting facilitation, public speaking, communication and writing skills, organizers and staff have been working on a one-on-one basis with HOA participants to take on these exciting opportunities, use the skills they have learned, and feel supported to succeed. The type of skills that are essential to a successful speaking engagement are also very useful to HOA participants as they interview for jobs and required for some of the positions they are applying to.
Many of our graduates have gone on to secure employment, either at PTH or elsewhere, or to attend school. Through a new impact evaluation survey of HOA participants, we found that 87% of participants report feeling more able to communicate with their peers, 89% have seen an improvement in either their writing or computer skills, 73% feel that the skills they’ve acquired in HOA have helped them improve either their housing or shelter situation, and 90% report feeling more self confidence. These results indicate that a number of our targeted impacts are being achieved and that we can continue to refine our strategies to further improve our effectiveness.