Friday, March 23, 2007

Poverty Awareness Week at UNC

The Campus Y's annual week of social awareness, this year focusing on poverty, ends today with a speech by NAACP President William Barber, 11 a.m., Campus Y building (which I wish I could hear!). Last night, I participated in a panel in the Pit that focused on homelessness. It was moderated by Mayor Kevin Foy; other panelists were Chris Moran of the IFC and Stephen Kirton, a formerly homeless former Marine who now works at the men's shelter. Sen. Ellie Kinnaird capped the panel with a brief address.

This event was the beginning of the "box-out," meaning that later on students would hole up in cardboard boxes and spend the night there in the Pit. I don't know how many stayed to do that, but a good crowd turned out for the panel and discussion. It's just a small sampling, but I had a feeling that these were students really working to understand the complex issues that surround poverty and homelessness and are wanting to help.

Earlier, two students spent the night in the men's shelter and up the road at Homestart, the shelter for women and children.

For Charlie McGeehan, used to quiet nights, the noise associated with sharing the floor with a crowd of other men--the lack of privacy--was disconcerting. The food was terrible, and morning came too soon. But he did not fear for his safety, as friends had warned him he should. He left as early as possible, feeling both drained and a little guilty. "Although I spent the night at the shelter, I still have the safety net of my life at the University. Beyond that, I have the safety net of my parents." He left early, but he came away with a new insight: "I look up to the men who stay there daily and still have the energy and the mental toughness to work all day because it would be very difficult for me. When you think of the homeless, think of these men."

For Elizabeth Szypulski, the women at Homestart seemed more familiar than she would have predicted. What she heard from them "made the problem of homelessness far more real than statistics or anti-poverty campaigns ever have for me."

I realize now that the worries I had about the difference between me and the women I met are not as serious as I'd thought, in large part because there aren't actually too many differences to speak of.

None grew up expecting to find themselves in their current situation; when I keep that in mind that it's not far-fetched to think that I, or someone I'm close to, could find themselves in similar need sometime in the future.

I know that much of life comes down to choice and decision-making, but a lot of our choices are limited by where we start out, which is left up to chance. No one chooses where or to whom they're born, and none of us are able to control the amount of money or education our parents have, the health concerns we're likely to inherit, or the prejudices and discrimination we will or won't face because of race, sex, or socio-economic status.

While I probably can't go back and work at [Homestart] this semester - some of the same women will be there - I plan on going back and helping next year, and telling everyone I know interested in that type of work about the shelter and how to get involved. It's not that I think the women need me, specifically, or that I can make more of a difference than anyone else could. I'll do it with the hope someone else will do the same for me if I ever need it.

On our panel, all of us encouraged the students to make a point to get to know homeless people, to help us to continue to challenge the stereotypes, to volunteer when they could, to prepare to live their lives in ways that recognize that the privileges they'll enjoy as UNC grads come with responsibilities to others. Thanks to Mike Tarrant and the other organizers of Poverty Awareness Week 2007 for bringing this message home.

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