The Corner Perspective: Poking Holes

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In a recent podcast from The New Yorker, Marc Elias discusses his legal efforts to ensure the voting rights of all citizens.   Reflecting on a childhood experience, he recalls the time a POW soldier from WWII came to his bar-mitzvah class to share his wartime experience as a 19-year-old American Jewish soldier captured by the Nazis. 

“We were assigned to a work camp to dig potatoes for the German war effort. As an act of resistance, we would use our fingers to press holes in the potatoes with pieces of a barb-wire fence to promote rotting, one potato at a time,” said the POW survivor.

Recalling the man’s story with deep respect for his spirited defiance and relentless dedication, Elias explains that the tale “remains vivid and alive in my head as it did when I first heard it as a thirteen-year-old boy. Think of the futility and excessiveness! Here is a nineteen-year-old kid far from home trying to destroy the German work effort one potato at a time!”

Such a story defines and motivates his work. He admits that he is not optimistic given the present climate, but he remains committed to doing everything to ensure the right to vote and access to the polls. He concludes by saying, “That story has stuck with me since, so I am going to poke holes until there is nothing left to poke holes in.”

I often hear that homelessness will never end, yet the story by Marc Elias informs the energy which fuels the mission of the Volunteer Ministry Center. Staff and volunteers alike, starting back in 1987, decided to poke holes in the experience of homelessness. But instead of using barbed wire, our tool is the best practice of Housing First.

And it is making a difference. Housing First is an understanding that we cannot have or achieve good health and well-being without a safe, secure, and permanent place to live. Housing is a tool for recovery, not a carrot or a stick to motivate.

Since the start of this year, sixty of our neighbors have achieved housing. The most startling fact of their accomplishment perhaps lies in their resilience, as they have collectively experienced homelessness for 68 years. One neighbor, alone, had been homeless for over ten years!

 We first began using our “barbed tool” of Housing First in 2007; since then, over 1,270 individuals have achieved a place of their own.

Our work is not futile. We will continue to poke holes in the experience of homelessness until everyone finds a place to call home.

Bruce Spangler is the chief executive officer of Volunteer Ministry Center, a nonprofit agency located in Knoxville. VMC is a social agency dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness at

Bruce Spangler

Published on October 27, 2022.