Shelter Residents Take Charge Through the Coalition’s Client Advocacy Group

By Sarah Murphy

SafetyNetSp2012CAG

Every other Tuesday roughly 30 men and women from New York’s single adult shelters gather at the Coalition to participate in our Client Advocacy Group (CAG). Formed nearly two decades ago to help organize community boards of people living in homeless shelters, CAG has grown into a multi-faceted program based on advocacy, education, empowerment and socialization.

Each CAG meeting is facilitated by our Shelter Specialist and former CAG member, David Obele. He leads the group in a discussion about topics relevant to the members’ needs, such as DHS policies and procedures, voting rights, and more personal concerns, like ways to cope with the embarrassment and guilt that often come with being homeless. Having known what it is like to live in a shelter himself, David is able to get members to open up and focus on how they can make their lives better.

The group also goes over issues that have arisen in the shelters. David calls CAG his “eyes and ears.” As the designated shelter monitor, the Coalition is responsible for making sure 68 shelters are up to code, and as David put it, “We can’t be everywhere at one time, so we depend on CAG not only to tell us how things are going, but to go back to the shelters and help us negotiate with shelter staff and get things fixed.”

We hear a host of concerns. Some of the members have been wrongly threatened with eviction from the shelter. Others tell us that they have been placed in a shelter inappropriately, or forced to enter a drug treatment program when they are in fact sober. Still more come with complaints about shelter cleanliness, extreme temperatures, crime and poor staff treatment. David coaches them on ways to deal with these problems, but more importantly, the roundtable style of the session gives other CAG members the chance to share how they have dealt with similar situations in their shelters, helping to give each member a valuable sense of purpose.

After the business has been settled, they spend the remainder of the meeting eating dinner and socializing. “We want to let our CAG members know that they aren’t alone,” David acknowledges. “There is so much isolation in being homeless. This time allows people to realize they aren’t the only ones who have had hardships. That there are others like me.”

Outside of the meetings, CAG plays a central role in the Coalition’s advocacy efforts. In addition to heading shelter community board meetings and informing other residents about their rights, they join the Coalition at press conferences, rallies and marches – even going up to Albany in the middle of the winter to challenge government cuts. Through all of this, friendships are made, and many of our members – for the first time, in a long time – realize that they matter. They can make a difference.

Published in Safety Net, Spring 2012