This event, a lecture, was put on by the Friends of Ganser Library on October 2nd. I noticed that there was low attendance at the event, which may have been due to the copious rain that Millersville received that day. The speakers were Dr. Kerrie Farkas and Dr. Daniel O’Neill, as well as two student speakers who spoke about experiences working with the homeless in Lancaster. Dr. Farkas’ background includes doing a quality of life survey with Lancaster county, the one that reported we were one of the happiest in America. Dr. O’Neill works with depression, adult development, and anxiety, and teaches Freshman inquiry courses with an emphasis on the importance of homes and the devastating effects of homelessness.
Dr. O’Neill started off the presentation by explaining that most people see the homeless as dirty and disreputable, often asking for money on busy city streets with cardboard signs. He noted that the average passerby feels powerless to help these people, often giving them spare change out of pity, or feeling repulsed, moving away, thinking that the money given would go to support a drug habit or alcoholism. Part of the goal of the project the two undertook was to change the negative perceptions of the homeless community. They did this through implementing a service-learning project with Millersville classes and Water Street Ministries.
In the United States, there are over 600,000 homeless each night. Each night was emphasized because Dr. O’Neill wanted to correct the common assumption that people are homeless “permanently.” In fact, it’s much more common to move in and out of homelessness, either several times in a lifetime, or once due to a devastating personal event. The per night statistic is helpful because it shows that homelessness affects more people than those who have been homeless on any given day. Therefore, the number of people affected by homelessness at any point in their lifetime is far greater than 600,000. Statistically, almost one in every 200 people has used a homeless shelter in their lifetime.
He explained that there were several different segments of the homeless population. The most visible portion of this population is the chronically homeless, characterized by the street bum with a cardboard sign; however, they make up the smallest portion of the homeless population. The other, more common types of homelessness are episodic, drifting in and out of homelessness cyclically, and transitional, which may result from a medical emergency or job loss. 80 percent of the homeless population is transitional, meaning that they are homeless for only a brief time before they get back on their feet. Transitional homelessness has increased due to a decline in manufacturing and the value of the minimum wage, and a decline in public assistance due to budget cuts at the federal and state level.
O’Neill compared minimum wage of about 30 years ago to the current minimum wage. As one would expect, the difference was drastic. Wages are worth far less now than they once were. This poses major problems for those trying to afford housing on minimum wage jobs. He also emphasized that traditionally, less of one’s income was spent on housing. The recommended percentage of income spent on housing years ago, according to home economics teachers and financial planners, was 25 percent. This has only increased to a recommendation of 30 percent over a period of time when the cost of housing has risen much more. Commonly, housing costs much more than 30 percent of an income, and in some circumstances can be more than 50 percent. Many people are in a situation where the cost of housing becomes unbearable, especially when added to the cost of childcare and food. Due to cost, housing is often one of the first things to become unstable if an income is lost.
Homeless shelters do not simply focus on re-housing. They focus on an individual’s whole life, and make sure they get help with health care issues, mental illness, and addiction. They want to make sure people get into better circumstances so they don’t have a need to return to the shelter. Gradually, there has been a movement away from the traditional shelter system towards rapid re-housing. Rapid re-housing is what it sounds like – getting people into a semi-permanent housing situation as quickly as possible, and providing services to them in that situation. Dr. O’Neill explained that people’s sense of personal security is directly tied to where they live and the control they have over that situation. The previous, traditional shelter model focused on providing services only within the shelter walls, and getting someone into housing was only considered after services had been provided. The rapid re-housing model, in addition to being more successful in keeping people out of the homelessness cycle, has also been proven to be extraordinarily cost-effective.
Dr. Kerrie Farkas talked about real-world engagement in classes that educated students about the realities and misconceptions about homelessness. Her students conducted interviews and led writing workshops with the homeless at Water Street Ministries. She made note of her students’ thoughts before and after the project and noted that their perceptions of the homeless community completely changed. There were two students that spoke about their experiences and read class journal excerpts describing how they felt before, during, and after the interview experience. It was clear that involving students with the homeless was an effective way to change negative perceptions.
This Friends of Ganser Library lecture shed light on a prominent issue in American culture. It used education about stereotypes to reduce fear of the ‘other’ and impress upon us that many people could easily become homeless should a job be lost or a medical emergency take place. By listening to the stories of the homeless, Millersville students are on the path to understanding a stigmatized community and spreading this knowledge to others.
If you’d like to get involved with the homeless, November 10-17 of this year is Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. As well, many Millersville students get involved with the homeless during the United Way Day of Caring, an annual event.