Broadcasting Misfortune and Hope: The 2010 Homelessness Marathon

Kelsey Marie Bell
Spare Change News

Anthony Dixon was born in Detroit in 1956. In 1988 he lost his job at Chrysler and headed to California for new start. Dixon openly admits that he had fallen into some “bad habits” but he also had a pregnant wife and four kids. He thought California would be sunny, bright, warm and, “friendly, like on T.V.” He soon found it wasn’t, and that he couldn’t find work there either. Ending up with his family in a homeless shelter in Compton, he recalls, “I thought it was the end of the world for me. I thought it was the worst thing.”

But it wasn’t.

Instead, Dixon explains the shelter was, “a second chance on life.” He’s now speaking over the radio as a featured guest because he owns three vacant but fully furnished homes with water, electricity, internet and cable that he’s had constructed since November, 2008, for the purpose of offering shelter to the homeless. Yet the dwellings are still vacant because the state of Michigan has certain rules, and apparently no more funding for homeless shelters.

Speaking from a room in the Cass Community Social Services building in Detroit, Michigan Dixon is joined by Mike Rhodes the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper, and Executive Director of the DO Foundation, Brian O’Neal, and Robert Norse, the Founder of Homeless United for Freedom and Friendship. In the course of the ensuing discussion, Mr. Dixon gives the address of one of his houses and offers it up that night to anyone who really needs a place to stay, as he once did.

The event that’s brought these people together is The Homelessness Marathon. No, it’s not a race. The event is comprised of a 14-hour radio broadcast that began on 7pm on February 23rd and lasted until 9am the next morning. The radio show gives those who are homeless the chance to call a toll free number and speak to the nation that is denying them what some consider a basic human right—a home. This year, the voices of people from all over the United States were broadcast by host radio station of Henry Ford Community College, WHFR, 89.3 FM, in Detroit Michigan. The signal was then aired on over 100 American radio stations simultaneously, with a similar broadcast reaching listeners on 45 Canadian radio stations with the Canadian Homelessness Marathon. The goal of the event was to raise consciousness, with experts, politicians, advocates, and most importantly, the homeless themselves featured during the program.

Now in its thirteenth year, the Marathon was started by its current director, talk-radio host Jeremy Weir Alderson, or “Nobody.” This is the name with which Alderson uses as an identity for activities associated with the Homelessness Marathon. It comes from Alderson’s former broadcast, “The Nobody Show: Your Unabashed Voice of the Left and Left Out” for WEOS, an affiliate of NPR in New York State.

While in past years the location for Marathons has been selected based on myriad factors, this year’s choice to hold the event in Detroit has special significance. Suffering from high foreclosure rates and a poor job market due to outsourcing, the city has the highest poverty rate in the country, an estimated at 33.8 percent in 2008. One third of residents were unemployed when a 28.9 percent unemployment rate was recorded in July 2009. At this point, the city’s mayor Dave Bing was quoted as guessing that the number should be closer to 50 percent. According to Alderson, the city is the “Center of America’s meltdown.”

For those living on the edge in Detroit, the future looks especially bleak. At any given time there are between 13,000 and 14,000 homeless people in the city, 60% of whom are families with children. A treasury short of funds means that even plans for positive changes fall short of helping those in need. The municipality’s “10 Year Plan To End Homelessness,” hopes to help some who have fallen on hard times, but would leave many others on the streets. There is no end in sight to Detroit’s homelessness.

The most chilling part of the situation in Detroit however, is that the situation there could very well become the situation everywhere should the status quo continue. When I talk with Alderson, he emphasizes that the problems being suffered not just by Detroit but our nation as a whole.

“Though people like to say that we are going to gradually ‘recover,’ I personally don’t see how when the problems are still being unaddressed. We don’t have a major jobs program, we don’t have national healthcare, we don’t have investment in infrastructure, we’re not building housing…this meltdown was not some little blip that happened by accident. It happened because of decades worth of bad policy and I don’t see them changing.”

If there’s any good to what we’re experiencing, Alderson says it’s contained in what he sees as changing in people’s ability to “understand what they understood in the
Depression: that if there are a lot of people on the streets it’s because there’s something wrong with the system, not the people.”

Indeed, after listening to the Marathon broadcast, this seems to be only explanation for the situations that some speakers have been through. The multitude of people who called in or came to the broadcast to speak is incredible, and on air the hosts struggle to let everyone their say while keeping on schedule.

Juliette, a woman from Albuquerque, NM, holds several degrees including a Master’s but is currently homeless due to the cost of college loans, trouble with domestic violence, and becoming disabled as the result of an accident. Still, she feels blessed to have been helped by various organizations and calls in to let others know about them.

A man named Johnny calls from Champaign, IL. He is associated with Safe Haven, an organization of homeless people that began as a group living in a tent city and is now fighting with various ministries against the government to obtain permanent housing. He speaks of facing, “nothing but ridicule and harassment” by city police, whom Johnny argues they had actually helped by finding a free place to live off of the streets. The reasoning they were given for being told to move was that there was a “no camping policy,” and that the “community was afraid of us.”

“Nobody” is soon joined on air by Kathleen Johnson, the director of the Katrina Relief in Mississippi, who speaks about the lack of Section 8 housing available in her area. The agency was just able to temporarily help a pregnant woman who lost her job get housing. Still, she’s not sure how they’ll be able to keep her there. Then, a mother who is currently homeless calls in. Ms. Johnson directs her on where and how to get help.

Ms. Johnson’s display of on air altruism is nothing new to Alderson, whose broadcasts have shown him that as bad as things are, people aren’t homeless because the public wants them to be. Still, while the awareness for those who are suffering is increasing, without a proper response to the crisis of homelessness, Alderson doesn’t see any solution in sight. He responds to one caller’s story: “There’s just not enough help out there. Even though people mean well, there’s just not enough of it.”

For more information about the Homelessness Marathon including
schedules and sound clips from previous broadcasts, access:
http://www.homelessnessmarathon.org

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