NOTIONS: 2006 years later and still no room at the inn

December 18, 2006

I've sat through my share of seminars, sermons and speeches. I've heard all the shoulds, coulds, oughtas, haftas and gottas offered up by well-meaning teachers, preachers and other pontificators.

And while I've tried to heed more of their wisdom than I've blown off, much of the blah-blah has gone in one hearing aid and out the other. You can chalk that up to dry delivery, other matters on my mind, lack of relevance or information overload.

Whatever the case, the message didn't get through. And whatever action sought didn't happen.

Twenty years ago, there was a notable exception.

I was sitting in a Leadership Greater Hartford presentation. Two speakers were introduced. Our host said they'd talk about homelessness.

As a middle-class suburbanite working in a high-end suburban office park, I didn't know much about homelessness. I didn't see many homeless people. And I didn't wake up in the morning contemplating their plight.

But Vern Baker and Phil Farnsworth changed that, and convinced me to help.

Vern Baker had been a success-insofar as success is measured by middle-class and wealthy folks. Baker was smart, well-educated and articulate. He became a professor at a prestigious East Coast university.

His problem, he said, was the bottle. Having climbed in his profession, he drank himself quite literally into the gutter of homelessness.

Once he got there, he said, lots of teachers, preachers, social workers, psychologists, friends, strangers and other pontificators offered up lots of coulds, shoulds, oughtas, haftas and gottas in an effort to rescue Vern from Vern.

But, Baker said, all that rational reasoning went in one ear and out the other. Because the escape route from homelessness isn't paved with other people's rationales. Instead, he said, the ways out-and the timing of those exits-are as many and varied as homeless people themselves.

In Baker's case, he was lying curbside one day when a picture of his daughter fell out of his wallet. That moment convinced him to clean up. Eventually, he started sharing his story in hopes of helping others find their own moment.

Baker's sidekick, Phil Farnsworth, had a different story. A talented photojournalist, he was lounging off the effects of a big Thanksgiving feast when a story came on TV. It was about homelessness. The contrast between his own gluttony and the starvation on nearby streets made him physically ill.

That day, Farnsworth hatched a plan. He'd shoot images of homeless people so they'd no longer be invisible to middleclass minions working in high-end office parks. Month after month, year after year, he shot on the streets, in the gutters and under the interstate bridges. He also shot striking contrasts: Homeless people passing through everyday affluence.

His images shook me: How could I not have seen this?

After I heard Baker and Farnsworth, I wanted more people to know their story. So I created an advertisement. It compared the story of today's homeless with the traditional Christmas story.

My leadership program classmates raised money to run the ad in The Hartford Courant. Then the Courant agreed to run it for free, on Christmas Day, so all the money raised by the ad could benefit the homeless.

Our ad featured one of Farnsworth's images-a black-and-white photograph of a homeless man sleeping under a cardboard box outside Hartford's Union Station.

The headline said, "1986 years later. And still no room at the inn."

Then it said:

Christmas Day. For most of us, it means gifts and glee. Family and friends. Feasts and fellowship.

But a few miles from your home and ours, there is no joy. Beneath the interstate bridges ... among the park benches and abandoned cars ... within the makeshift homes of Hartford's homeless ... there's no Santa Claus and no Christmas tree. No turkey and no presents. There's no heat, no laughter and very little hope.

Christmas was born of poverty. But for the homeless this Christmas, there's a cardboard box where once there were swaddling clothes. There's bare concrete where once stood a manger. Instead of ox and ass, there are roaches and rats. Instead of gold, incense and myrrh ... a shiver of cold, a scrap of bread, a pang of loneliness.

Please ... on this day of giving, help us help the homeless come home. Open your presents. Then open your hearts. Clip the coupon and send us a dollar, or 5 or 50-whatever you can spare to bring a little more food, a little more hope and a little more room to the inn.

It's now 2006 years later. And homelessness remains a problem-in Indianapolis, in Hartford and elsewhere.

If, during this time of celebration, you feel compelled to help-with a dollar, or 5 or 50 or some gloves, or a blanket, or a can of soup-you can find out how by calling the Coalition for Homeless Intervention and Prevention at 630-0853, or by visiting its Web site at www.chipindy.organd clicking on the "How to Help" button.

That's not a should, could, gotta, hafta or oughta. It's just a plain ol' plea for help.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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