The Music of Ending Homelessness -


The Music of Ending Homelessness 

March 19, 2013

The music in my home when I was growing up was an unusual blend of 70’s Korean pop ballads, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Who. Today when I come home from work I’m more likely to hear Gangnam Style, the Harlem Shake, or Macklemore coming from my kids’ iPods. Times may have changed, but music is still a large part of what makes a home, and that’s why Richard Carter’s story has meant so much to me.

Most of our work at the Foundation is aimed at bringing about large scale changes that address major inequities around the world.  The foundation takes on huge challenges—eradicating polio overseas, ensuring that all children in the United States have a quality education, or in my case, reducing family homelessness in the Puget Sound region.  The only way the foundation can have lasting and meaningful impact is by using our funds to trigger changes in the larger governmental systems that exist to solve these problems at scale.  We necessarily focus our efforts on developing strong, catalytic partnerships with governments and direct service providers, and so all too frequently, our work can feel somewhat removed from the lives of the people we’re trying to serve.

Last October, we had the opportunity to interview four families recovering from homelessness in the Puget Sound region that had received services from the Washington Families Fund, a public-private partnership administered by Building Changes, a Foundation grantee.

The interviews – including one with Richard Carter, the young man who appears in this video – were conducted to prepare a four-minute film that kicked off a two-day family homelessness meeting at the Foundation that brought together federal, state and local leaders, housing and homelessness advocates, as well as the country’s leading homelessness researchers, to discuss the most effective ways to deliver housing and services for homeless families.

As the Foundation’s film crew was wrapping its interview with Richard, Dave Gross, the sound man for the shoot, asked him about a small piano in the corner of Richard’s bedroom and asked him whether he played.  The crew saw Richard smile and after some persuasion, as the crew scrambled to relight and reset their equipment, Richard performed the original composition that became the orchestrated score that graces the video.  The crew was immediately struck by the poignancy of Richard’s performance and knew as they were rolling that they had captured a special moment that would anchor the heart of their production.

As the crew left Richard’s family’s apartment, Richard commented that noise restrictions in the complex unfortunately limited his ability to play his piano on a regular basis.  Gross immediately realized that what Richard needed was a digital piano with headphones so that he could play without disturbing anyone.

As a member of the Board of Governors for the Pacific NW Chapter of The Recording Academy, the organization that puts on the GRAMMY Awards, Gross was able to contact MusiCares, the charitable arm of Recording Academy. MusiCares was so moved and inspired by Richard’s story that the organization agreed to donate a brand new digital piano that Richard would be able to play and record whenever he wanted. Within a few days, Gross, video producer David Wulzen, and the cinematographer of the video, Christopher Bell, were able to present Richard with his new keyboard.

The Foundation’s family homelessness strategy is an effort to improve the lives of tens of thousands of homeless families in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties, and my work as a program officer here is therefore focused on partnering with governments to think about how use public and private resources more efficiently and effectively to provide housing and services for these families.
I think of my work as prose—I’m spending most of my days working through dense programs and funding policies and thinking about how these words and numbers might be better aligned to serve families I will never meet.

However, it’s the poetry of Richard’s music-- and the similar talents and passions of so many other homeless children and their mothers-- that remind me why our work of systems change really matters, and in the end, how our success will ultimately be measured.

Lest we not forget!

15th St. and M St. in DC, "The Houseless" at

In New Britain, CCSU unit studies degrees of homelessness -


In New Britain, CCSU unit studies degrees of homelessness

Monday, March 18, 2013 10:20 AM EDT

NEW BRITAIN — Members of Community Central, a community-based program affiliated with Central Connecticut State University, and Briggitte Brown, community organizer for the city of New Britain, recently sat down with Michael Lexton Hawkins, a formerly homeless New Britain resident, to discuss the causes of homelessness and to work toward solutions.

Hannah Hurwitz, a member of Community Central, said, “We’re basically trying to collect information to put everything into perspective. We want to learn their stories, find out about the barriers they face, and find ways to help them overcome those barriers. We want to see them succeed, get a good job and get back on their feet.”

Hawkins had been a longtime homeless resident. He has also been living with AIDS since 1987. A recovering drug addict, Hawkins has been clean for three years. He is now living in an apartment in New Britain, is on disability and volunteers at organizations such as Safety Counts.

At the meeting, Hawkins shared what it was like to experience homelessness. 
“I know the feeling of hopelessness and the various things that cause it,” said Hawkins. “There are so many organizations that say they will help you. However, if you don’t have a foundation, if you don’t have warmth and security, where’s the hope? My biggest obstacle was myself and my way of thinking.”

John Carey, an intern from CCSU and an environmental geography major with a geographical information systems minor, explained the degrees of homelessness.

“Some have been homeless before and are no longer,” said Carey. “Others are staying with friends and have their basic needs provided. Some are living in shelters or churches, and then there’s the people actually living on the streets.”

Carey is currently compiling an online database that maps out places where the homeless of New Britain can go for food, health care, recreation, housing assistance and behavioral help as well resources such as the police and fire departments.

“My goal is to make this database as user-friendly as possible,” Carey said. “I also want to work with public libraries to get the homeless a library card they can use to read or use the Internet at the library even if they can’t check out books.”

There are many reasons people become homeless, according to Hawkins.

“Situations happen in life, I don’t blame anyone,” said Hawkins. “Some people drink, some people use drugs, with others it’s psychological. Some people become homeless through no fault of their own. I had a friend who was an executive before his wife left him and took his child. The bottom line is we’re human beings, and it could happen to any of us.”

Brown discussed the mayor’s plan to create a homeless commission where homeless people can give advice to policy makers directly. She also discussed the upcoming Brunch and Conversation event taking place at Community Central April 6 at 11 a.m.

“That’s beautiful, the first time I’ve seen something like this,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins has also written a book of poetry, “To Touch a Nerve,” based on his experience with homelessness, AIDS and prison. The book is slated for release at the end of the month through the AuthorHouse publishing company. It is the first of three books he plans to release. He plans to donate money that he receives from the sales to organizations that support the homeless.

In 2008, Hawkins served a six-month prison term for using and selling drugs.

“When I was in prison, they helped me treat my heroin and cocaine addiction,” Hawkins said. “I wasn’t taking any HIV medication and I wasn’t being treated for my bipolar disorder. The agencies told me that I was killing myself and that I needed to receive treatment. Prison was a curse, but it was also a blessing in disguise. It was a rude awakening to a spiritual awakening.”

“I believe I’m here for a reason, through the grace of God,” Hawkins said. “I’m glad to be part of the solution, not part of the problem today. It’s not going to happen overnight, I’m not looking for miracles, but if we can help one person or a few it’s worth it.”

For more information on Community Central, call Hurwitz at (203) 843-2121, or visit

Brian M. Johnson can be reached at (860) 225-4601, ext. 216, or

Lest we not forget!

15th St. and M St. in DC, "The Houseless" at