On Wednesday, July 24, at 10 am, homelessness will be highlighted all across the country on noncommercial radio frequencies as part of the 21st annual Homelessness Marathon. For 14 hours straight, stations, including this year’s host site WMBR in Cambridge, will broadcast a series of interviews, live reports, and call-ins centered around homelessness and intersecting issues.
The marathon began as an impromptu broadcast by founder Jeremy Alderson in 1998 for his old radio show in upstate New York. He often found himself frustrated with not being able to fit everything he wanted into his regular timeslot, and asked the station’s manager if he could run the show for a bit longer.
“To my surprise, he said, ‘Sure, you’re the last local program on the schedule’ … and then I got this incredible gift of airtime,” Alderson said in a phone interview. “That just made me realize, ‘Well, I gotta do something with it that I think is important.’”
Having himself experienced a period of couch surfing, an often overlooked form of homelessness, Alderson felt inspired to dive further into the issue, but says his debut “was an awful broadcast.” Still, he kept at it, and growing interest in the concept and his willingness to learn more about homelessness led him to take the marathon national in 1999. In the decades since, he’s brought the show from city to city, having discussions at the cross-section of national and local challenges.
Data is notoriously unreliable in this realm and often fails to represent some populations that are statistically “invisible” or in some cases do not consider themselves to be homeless. As for the official numbers, according to a 2018 assessment by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an estimated 552,830 people are considered homeless in the US. Despite an almost 80,000 person decrease overall from 2008 reports, the Commonwealth has experienced an upsurge.
From 2007 to 2018, homelessness in Mass increased by 4,941 (32.7%). The Bay State also saw a significant increase in its homeless population (14.2%) between 2017 and 2018. In the Hub alone, an estimated 6,203 people are homeless, according to a 2019 census run by the city of Boston.
While homelessness is steadily trending downward nationally, Alderson wants people to discuss how they can fix things now instead of later.
“We said we’re going to do this the same way the British had to get their troops out of Dunkirk,” the radio host said. “It was an immediate need. They were going to die and homeless people are dying.”
Marathon anticipation aside, Alderson concedes that efforts like his can feel limited. In considering “the combined efforts of all of the homeless advocates in the United States put together for more than three decades,” he said, “I’ve only succeeded in watching things get worse and worse.”
At the same time, for groups like Health Care Without Walls (HCWW), Alderson’s annual show gives a spotlight to organizations that aid the cause in the shadows.
“The issue of homelessness is a difficult one, and focusing on women who are homeless is something that is often not recognized as a significant issue,” said Eileen Samels, who runs development and operations at HCWW. The organization has provided free healthcare and services to women for 20 years and will be using its time to shed light on the unique issues homeless women face. Samels hopes to have some of the women her organization has helped share their experiences. Opportunities like these—allowing the homeless to speak directly on air to a national audience—are what Alderson regards as the real benefit of the broadcast. To that end, this year’s marathon will include interviews with homeless people from countries as far away as China and the UK, the mix of whom will amplify the similarities as well as differences of plights across the globe.
“Homeless people who participated in it tell us they feel a greater sense of dignity after they’ve spoken because somebody took them seriously,” Alderson said. “It makes them feel like the citizens they are and to have the dignity they ought to have. If that’s all we accomplish, so be it. That’s enough.”
It’s worth the effort, even if his work providing a bullhorn for the homeless and engrossing himself in the issue has taken a toll on his own well-being.
“It’s just made me a bitter old curmudgeon,” Alderson said about halfway through our 30-minute conversation. “The biggest frustration is talking to homeless people and wishing … wishing I could do anything for them, and nothing ever changes for them. It’s just terrible.
“Homelessness is a problem that can be solved. … And it’s got to be solved in a way that recognizes people’s rights and their status as citizens.”