This article was written by Olivia M., an Essex County, NJ Middle School Student.
The following article is a part of a new series, “Listening to Youth Voices in the New Year.” Each Sunday, articles written by Essex County Middle School students will be published, each week relating to a new topic. You can learn more about this series here.
If you live in or near a big city, you probably have seen many homeless people roaming the streets. Most of the time, we turn away, cross the street, look the other way. On Sunday, December 18th, I was given an opportunity to do just the opposite. There is a program in my church, that most everyone knows about if they happen to go on the third Sunday of the month, ever. Going along with a few hunger programs running at the church, on these Sundays there are two tables in Fellowship Hall. In addition to the usual one with some cookie platters and tea sandwiches, coffee, tea etc, there is a plate full of platters with tomato, lettuce cheese, bread and other sandwich items. As a group, assembly line style, everyone works together to make and then put the sandwiches in little bags with cookies juice and fruits. Then a much smaller group of people drive to Newark Penn Station and hand out the lunches to the homeless and hungry.
I have known about and participated in the sandwich making for quite a long time, but this was my first time going on the trip. It deeply affected me, this experience. Seeing the grateful faces, the ones who were so happy to have the spare lotion that had been brought in addition to the food. The man who was there every week and knew where the people who couldn’t walk to make it to the table hid out, so he counted them up and brought lunches to all of them, in addition to taking one for himself. When faced by the reality and sheer number of people who deal with these issues of poverty and homelessness, I began to wonder about the underlying issues. There were disparities in who we saw there. It really forced me to begin to reconcile with the humanity of these people along with the underlying issues. This powerful experience happened to coincide with the day before I began writing this.
There are many other people, around the globe facing homelessness or extreme poverty. Society, the government, and the police neglect homeless people through treating them poorly, building cities in ways that purposefully make life harder for them, and pretending they don't exist. They use their power to do things that have racist, classist, and ableist undertones. Homeless people are often trapped in the poverty cycle and we need to battle prejudice, face the immediate needs of the people, as well as figure out how to get to the root of the problem so that we can help end this immense issue.
One of the major ways that power is abused in a way that negatively affects homeless people is the purposeful design of cities in ways that make it hard for people to survive on the streets. The thing about these designs is it can be very difficult to pinpoint the exact reasoning behind why something is shaped a certain way, and even harder to stake concrete and arguable claims against a city for it. “We call this a silent agent. These designs are hidden, or not apparent to people they don’t target.” says Selena Savic, co-editor of the book Unpleasant Design. One example of this is that any surface that could be used to lay down on, or even could be sat on for a longer amount of time is then covered in spikes, stones and other pieces of stone, concrete or metal which effectively prevent people who have nowhere to go and nowhere to sleep for the night from seeking refuge on these corners of sidewalks and between buildings. You also see this in the redesigning of park benches. From the conveniently placed middle armrest on more classic benches to the newly thought of “Camden Bench” which is uncomfortable to sit on for a long while, and impossible to lie down on city designers are desperately trying to keep homeless people away and invisible but not in solving any issues. Due to these abuses of power, homeless people are kept out, making it harder for them to get back on their feet. People should not get to dictate who can be seen or get help just because they are higher up on the government hierarchy.
Big cities have a history of this “unfriendly architecture” and other ways of keeping certain citizens out and it is often rooted in systemic racism, ableism, classism, or some combination of the three. This definitely affects people who aren’t homeless, but seeing that as of 2010, c in shelters are black, though black people make up around 12% of the overall U.S. population, and over ⅖ of the homeless population is disabled in some way and all homeless people are considered near the bottom of the American social hierarchy, they are a major group impacted by these prejudices. A primary builder of 20th century New York City, Robert Moses crossed all his roads in Long Island with low stone bridges that buses could not go under. This simple act may have seemed purely style oriented to wealthy car owners but the buses were the major form of transportation for poor predominately black New Yorkers. This simple architecture gave Moses the power to shape who came to his beaches, simply by who was able to get there. Moses abused his power to get wealthier, whiter beachgoers but because that is inferred, it is much harder to do anything to stop them. Unfortunately, these patterns of racism and ableism are not diminishing as fast as you would hope. According to the Student Disability Service program at Cornell University, around 1,450 students have registered as having a disability or needing accommodations due to a disability in the 2015/2016 school year. If you ask theses students, they will tell you almost immediately some of the examples of day to day discrimination which they face. One study also reported that people with disabilities are sexually assaulted over twice as much as people without disabilities. People who make it to college only to be mistreated this much may lose their hope and spirit. Also why should we believe that the people doing the discriminating are going to stop after college or high school. These alarming anecdotes and statistics along with many others you hear almost daily, prove why it’s harder to just exist when facing immense prejudices and add the prejudice against homeless people and it would be nearly impossible to get back on your feet.
If you are wondering how minorities and people with disabilities grew to be a disproportionate percentage of the homeless population, we owe that primarily to housing and job discrimination. “Residential segregation, which affects black households to a greater extent than other minorities, perpetuates poverty patterns by isolating blacks in areas that lack employment opportunities and services, and experience higher crime and poverty rates.” says Ralph da Costa Nuñez PhD. Over the years there have been many scandals about racial discrimination in the housing industry, one such example which has been coming up a lot in recent days is the 1973 lawsuit against Donald Trump for showing an incredible racist bias when determining tenants. Wealthy and able-bodied white people have more power in this country than poor or homeless black or disabled people. That is unfortunately the way it works in our country. So if those people with more power abuse it to keep certain groups of people out of a home or out of a job, the homelessness crisis will never be solved.
We as a society must begin to question the ways we go about solving the homelessness crisis. One thing to remember is that while it is simpler and possibly more rewarding to face immediate needs, such as feeding people, organizing coat drives, and other things of that nature is that none of these permanently fix anything. Another thing to remember is that homelessness will never be solved as just a poverty issue. A staggering number of homeless people are homeless because they face discrimination, and we didn’t even discuss LGBT people being thrown out of their homes. If you are under the impression that just dealing with immediate issues, or ignoring the inherent biases in day to day life which lead to homelessness will still let you solve this issue, you are sorely mistaken. Giving someone one meal, or even a week's worth does not get them to a place where they can buy their own meals. So come up with a plan, to permanently keep people off the streets and meanwhile, treat them well and give them a small up front gift to keep them going. Think critically about why things work a certain way or why things are built a certain way and if you think you have found something unjust, do something about it. Find and change the day to day examples of racism, classism, ableism and other prejudices you see in day to day life. There are a lot of things wrong with the way poverty is dealt with globally, and wherever you are, you can figure out something to do to make it better. However we must first be willing to, as a nation, accept and help all people if we truly want to keep them off the streets.