USD’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Theatre hosts a free forum tonight at 7, “Solutions to Homelessness in San Diego” with community leaders. Inside USD asked a few questions and sought input from USD students, seniors Calvin Bair (sociology major) and Elizabeth Lee (political science), presidents of USD organizations, Student Homeless Alliance and Shelter San Diego, respectively, and sophomore Margarita Vargas Patron (sociology) about homelessness and potential solutions.
Question: What do you believe to be the truth about homelessness and what’s the biggest myth?
Bair: There are many truths regarding homelessness, but it would seem that the overarching theme is that homelessness can affect anyone at any time. It’s a series of events — an illness, a death, a lost job, a chronic condition, and an eviction — that builds over time. Not days or weeks, but months, years even. The pressure builds, the bad luck continues, the job doesn’t come through, you can’t afford the treatment you need, your savings runs out, your family finally gives up on you, your car won’t start, until one night you find yourself with nowhere to go, no one to call. There are no more couches, no more cars or hotel rooms, no more favors, no more money. It’s just a suitcase, a cool night and a new, violent place — the street. From my limited experience the only truth about homelessness is this: you never see it coming.
Lee: The truth I’ve found about homelessness is that it can happen to anyone and they are human beings, just like us, who deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. The homeless are individuals who have come across hard times, have lost connection with family and friends, or struggle with a variety of challenges. As fellow citizens and human beings, we all have a duty to treat them with respect and to support them. Along these lines, I believe the biggest myth is the opinion that homeless people have brought their situation upon themselves.
Vargas Patron: In this country, the American Dream shouts ‘Hey, it can be achieved by pulling yourself up by the bootstraps!” meritocracy. Consequently, most people I encounter believe homelessness is due to a person’s laziness and they continue to be homeless because they choose it. That, I feel, is the biggest myth about homelessness. I believe that meritocracy doesn’t always work. Those who are homeless includes a wide range of factors that contribute to a population labeled as ‘homeless.’ Anyone can become homeless.
Question: How did you get involved with the student organizations and how has it educated you about homelessness?
Bair: The Student Homeless Alliance was formed to compliment the awareness and advocacy work done by Shelter San Diego. While the latter concentrates on bringing attention to homelessness and its ancillary issues, we use our energies and resources to empower men and women experiencing homelessness to recognize their own agency and begin to use their skills and talents to improve their quality of life. Our interactions with the homeless, working poor, service providers and USD administration have been intensely educational. Homelessness, while overtly affecting those we see on the street, impacts everyone in San Diego in some way. From the family escaping abuse by living in their car, to the officer that has to ask them to move their car every morning, to the business owner who owns the property the car is parked in front of, to the social worker trying to track them down and get them into affordable housing. It’s a chain reaction and it touches everyone directly or indirectly.
Lee: The motivation behind my involvement in this cause came during my freshman year when I was shocked and saddened by the large numbers of homeless people in San Diego. I wanted to learn more about the homeless population and how I might be able to help. With this new motivation, my friend, Ian Harper, and I started Shelter San Diego, a student organization, to educate fellow students on issues of homelessness and involve them in local volunteer opportunities. Through this experience, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many students and faculty who are passionate about this cause and have inspired me to do more. One “lesson” I’ve kept is that the homeless are not “the other” … they’re just like us. They have talents, emotions, fears and skills and should be viewed with this in mind.
Question: Tonight’s USD forum not only keeps the conversation going and raises awareness, but it also provides potential solutions. How can the USD community contribute to the solution?
Bair: USD could commit to hiring individuals staying at Father Joe’s Village, those who have a difficult time getting employment and holding jobs, because their status as residents at Father Joe’s has marked them as “homeless” and thus everyone assumes the worst, mostly untrue stereotypes apply to them. USD could provide more funding to organizations such as Shelter San Diego, CASA or University Ministry to continue or expand the wonderful programs they’re already involved in. USD could partner with local service providers such as Father Joe’s, Regional Task Force on the Homeless, Stand Down San Diego, and others, so that upperclassman can intern with these organizations for college credit. I think USD is moving in the right direction with Thursday’s forum, the (In)Visible Project (pictured, top and bottom, left) and the Social Innovation Challenge. The university will only get out of these efforts what it continues to put into it. I hope USD can make a long-term, material commitment to bring positive change on a local and regional basis.
Lee: The USD community can contribute by allowing students and departments to share our resources and abundance with those in need. I believe that to truly follow our university’s dedication to social justice, we must give back to those who are struggling and going hungry “in our own backyard.” Whether it’s allowing students to use extra meal swipes to serve food to the area’s homeless or allow them to donate the money to a local shelter, I believe USD can be more flexible and responsive to students’ and faculty members’ dedication to the homeless.
Vargas Patron: First-year students generally tend to overestimate how many meals they actually use throughout the year. I’d like to see USD organize an event where students could donate their meals and, for every meal donated, that a homeless shelter in San Diego gets the equivalent.
The university is hosting “The (In)Visible Project,” a free outdoor multimedia installation exhibit in front of the Student Life Pavilion through Feb. 25.
Photos courtesy of Barbara Ferguson