Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hunger, Homelessness, and Perspective

In honor of this week being Hunger and Homelessness week at SMC, I was inspired to write an article for the school paper, The Defender. I've been working with at-risk youth at the Spectrum Co-Op for about 2 months now, and I've loved every minute of it. A large part of Spectrum is working with homeless and at risk youth or youth in transition. Since working there I've really gained a different perspective on homelessness and its causes, which is a big reason I wrote the article. So, I'm bringing it to you here to read, but make sure you go to the Defender Online (link above) and check out the rest of the fabulous SMC publications.

“I’m 7 months pregnant and I haven’t eaten anything yet today”. Not exactly what you’d expect to hear from the mouth of a teenager at noon on a Wednesday. Two minutes and a few blocks later and it was “do you have a dollar I could borrow?” She was so nice, and I was nice back. I honestly didn’t think I had a dollar, but as I opened my wallet later to take out my debit card for an indulgence at Starbucks, I realized I had a few singles. In my defense, I forget I have cash at least once a week.

Still, I wrestled with the idea of going back and giving a dollar to her. But what would she use it for? Drugs? Alcohol? Or food, a bottle of water, a winter hat, or a bus ticket? Isn’t that the dilemma most people have when they get asked for money on the street? Are these homeless people really in need or are they simple messing up their own lives?

I’m guilty, too, of having stereotypical thoughts about homelessness, especially before my internship this year. But consider this situation: a married couple with two kids works jobs with hourly wages, and when one falls and is injured, the couple falls behind on their rent and eventually gets evicted. Homelessness and moving to a shelter is the only viable option. Or how about this: a young woman moves away to college, loses her part time job, and can no longer afford an apartment on top of school loans and living prices. She winds up in a shelter, living on meals from the food shelf. Not what you were thinking when I first mentioned homelessness?

I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad. Remember, I was stereotypical about homelessness once too. But for the last two months I’ve been working for Spectrum Youth and Family Services with at-risk youth. I’ve spent time in their shelter, I walk into the drop-in once a week, and I am constantly learning about the struggle of kids lucky enough to be in the system and not on the street. Recent years have seen an incredible increase in the number of children living with their families in shelters like COTS, or youth living in shelters like Spectrum. These are the lucky ones, who have warm place to stay and some food. Countless more survive on the streets of Burlington, and we can only hope they will take advantage of food shelves, health centers, and street outreach programs.

So what about the pregnant teenager? Is it her fault? I mean maybe. But maybe her parents also kicked her out into the cold Vermont winter without any family to turn to and nobody to help her through the pregnancy. I’m not asking anyone to make a dramatic life change and begin volunteering at the soup kitchen every night. I’m not asking you to never indulge in a cup of Starbucks, or to give all of your money away to charity donations or to people on the street. I’m simply asking for some perspective next time you see someone on Church Street who might be down on their luck. Just remember that homelessness isn’t always the result of alcoholism or drug addiction. If nothing else, perspective is the least we can give to these people.

If you’re interested in giving more, especially with the cold weather and the holidays approaching, visit the wish lists for COTS and Spectrum or donate your time, it won’t go unnoticed.

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