Many of our campaign issues at Consumers Union impact a broad spectrum of society, and finding advocates who want to share their story and have the technology to do so isn’t necessarily difficult. However, many non-profit organizations are working tirelessly to tell the stories of people who may not have access to technology. One such movement has developed a strategy that tackles its mission despite the digital divide. With an ambitious goal of housing 100,000 of the most vulnerable chronically homeless people across the US by July 2014, the 100k Homes Campaign and it’s 170 local level community partners and thousands of volunteers are adding leg work to their storytelling equation – to find and share the stories of their homeless neighbors, and turn those stories into homes.

We had the privilege this past week of speaking with both Jake Maguire, Communications Director of the national level 100k Homes Campaign, and Jennifer Loving, Director of Destination: Home and partner in the local level Housing 1000 Silicon Valley. Housing 1000 is just one of the 170 partner communities that have joined the campaign, and already, participating communities have provided permanent housing for over 22,000 chronically homeless people across the US. Both Jake and Jennifer gave us some of their time last week to discuss the role of storytelling and technology in this movement.

Counting the Homeless, Counting Stories

Communities participating in the 100k Homes movement start by conducting a local level count of the homeless in their community, and this is really where the storytelling begins. Hundreds of volunteers in each participating community spend a week fanning out across a region, often in the middle of the night, to meet the homeless where they are and interview them about their experience and needs. The “data” these volunteers are collecting is, in a way, a story. A completely fictionalized version of the story could look like this: “this is Dave, he has heart disease and diabetes and has been living outdoors for 18 years. He was hospitalized twice last year, and this is his picture.” Local organizations then use this information to prioritize needs, lineup housing, and locate individuals when housing is available. After discovering these very personal and challenging stories, volunteers and partner organizations are motivated to make changes, and quickly. Local campaigns make use of the goodwill created during registry weeks to make sweeping changes to the speed of the housing process – reducing wait times from months to weeks or even days, and generate commitments to support the newly housed with move-in kits. Loving reports “These stories help to make the macro, micro.  ’Ending homelessness’ is kind of like ‘world peace.’ It sounds great – but what does it mean for a person who wants to get personally involved? How can we demonstrate that each of us can make a tangible difference?”

Mark shared his story on the Housing 1000 blog.

Each man and woman housed helps build momentum towards the goal of housing 100,000 chronically homeless people by 2014. “Showing the real faces of folks from our streets on the cusp of ending their homelessness after 20 years is a way to say ‘this works’ – and it can work again, and again, and again” says Loving. The 100k Homes national campaign starts out every Monday with a blog post featuring a recent housing success story from one of their many community partners. Housing 1000 monthly newsletter features in depth interviews with recently housed individuals, volunteers, and social workers – personalizing the entire process while maintaining respect for the story ownership of those involved. Loving says “We’ve learned that folks who’ve survived homelessness are proud of what they’ve endured and are gracious about telling their story.  Our goal is always to let folks tell us their story in their own words, showing each person’s unique personality, hopes, and survival skills… We ask the men and women who we work with if they’d like to share their story, and if they do, it’s their story.  We are just the mouthpiece – the group that’s working to make everyone known.”

Harnessing Technology & Social Media

In the Silicon Valley, volunteers were able to use their proximity to the nation’s tech capital to enhance their data collection. Community Technology Alliance, a Housing 1000 partner, developed a mobile web application that helps volunteers record registry week information on their smartphones. Loving reports “one of the hardest things for our volunteers was erasing the pictures off their phones after the information was uploaded. People actually said ‘it felt like I was erasing someone’s life, a person I’ve just met and gotten to know – and want to see housed.’  It was a profound, moving experience for many people.” Housing 1000 has further paired technology and storytelling to aid in fundraising with their HousingONEwebsite. Also developed by Community Technology Partners, the crowdfunding website features men and women on the cusp of ending their homelessness, and allows people to contribute directly to move in kits that provide home necessities like furniture, pots and pans, and cleaning supplies. The website’s tagline calls users to “Join our Story.” To the Housing 1000 campaign, Loving says this tagline is a way of saying “we can end homelessness but it takes all of us – and here’s how you can be a part of it – whether by volunteering or sharing or donating – anyone can join our story.”

We as a team were very interested in how we could use social media and crowdfunding to rally our community – allowing folks to leverage their networks, friends, social media contacts.  It came from the idea that if we can all do a little, it can add up to quite a lot.”  Community Technology Alliance “had the initial idea and then we were fortunate to get support from the eBay Foundation to build it.  We are in the Silicon Valley – so there’s a strong appetite to use technology in new and innovative ways.  We’ve been pleased with the site so far – as a way to help defray the costs of moving folks into their new homes as well as an advocacy tool.  Your donation will be the icing on the cake, because it’s used to write that last chapter – furniture and furnishings that make a house a home.   Now it’s not “help us provide shelter” or “help us end homelessness”.  It’s “Help us house Bob this week” Housing ONE gives us a way to have people personally connect with our Housing 1000 friends, hear their personal story and if compelled it allows them a way to contribute to the ending of someone’s homelessness.  It’s immediate!

Both the 100k Homes national campaign and Housing 1000 are active on social media networks, generating awareness and support for their cause. Video is a particularly powerful tool for sharing a mission, and the national and local movements have created some great media telling the story of both individuals and the movement. I was surprised to see that one of the videos that moved me the most (and made me cry!) was one of the least technologically sophisticated. It was simply community member after community member offering to sponsor move in kits for recently housed, and it was shakily filmed with a handheld flip camera. In fact, the national campaign shares this video with new partner communities, and this video provides great inspiration for other nonprofits. According to Maguire “You don’t need a huge budget and a production house to make an impact on YouTube. In fact, people often respond better to clips that feel more human. The thing that’s so powerful about that video is that you know it’s real…those aren’t actors, they’re real people caught on camera during a very emotional moment. If it were up to us, we’d send a Flip camera to every community in America and say, ‘Just get out there and film what you’re doing! Let people see it!’ I think people are hungry for that kind of raw experience today.”

Conclusion(s)

I initiated contact with the 100k Homes campaign because I was specifically interested in how story collecting is tackled when your storytellers can’t operate freely in the digital world. While a large number of the homeless do have mobile phones and we are making leaps and bounds in technology and accessibility, the solution for 100k homes still needed to be a mesh of technology and footwork. And in this case, overcoming these obstacles with sheer manpower has proved one of the greatest successes of the movement. Bringing volunteers and policy makers face to face with their own local homeless population has proved invaluable in generating an advocacy movement behind permanent supportive housing, and the rapid policy changes necessary to match that movement.

I had the opportunity to listen to an NTEN webinar with Jonah Sachs  on the power of storytelling last Friday, and discuss the general concept of storytelling with an eye towards nonprofit branding. His repeated advice in using storytelling to share a nonprofit brand is that your organization is not the hero – a nonprofit organization is best when playing a support role and the audience is the hero. After speaking with both Jake and Jennifer, I’m struck by how the 100k Movement has been so careful to clearly define its heroes  The hero is not the campaign – it’s the local community, the volunteers, the policy makers making rapid changes, and the thousands of men and women surviving homelessness. The story of the 100k Homes campaign and Housing 1000 resonates so well as a brand and a movement because it asks the audience to be the hero and to participate on a personal level in this journey to end homelessness- to view the macro as micro- one home at a time.

Check out the full transcript of our interviews with Jake and Jennifer: