Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week kicked off last night with a panel entitled “Faces of Homelessness”. Two formerly homeless people and a third who is still homeless discussed their paths to and from homelessness. While each panelist had a different story to tell, common themes were that anybody can become hopeless and that sometimes all a homeless person wants is acknowledgement and a smile.
“I’m not here to make you feel sorry for homeless people,” began Willie Woods, the first panelist to speak. Woods, like all of the panelists, grew up in Washington, DC; in fact, he lived only seven blocks from the White House. He spoke of “growing up too fast” and wanting to be free of his parents’ authority at a very young age. After a stint in reform school, the 16-year old Woods decided not to go back home and became homeless. Woods stressed that being on the streets taught him nothing except drug and alcohol abuse. His failure to get a high school diploma would hurt him later in life.
After three years on the streets, his mother helped him enlist in the United States Marine Corps. After a few successful years in the USMC, Woods, in his own words, “screwed up” and was dishonorably discharged. Through all of this and into his second period of homelessness, Woods suffered from undiagnosed clinical depression. Woods was homeless for 12 years after leaving the Marines. “I was a nasty looking drug addict. I didn’t beg–I stole and I conned people out of their money. Conning people was the way I survived,” he explained. Eventually, Woods earned his GED through a shelter program and married a preacher. Today, at the age of 54, he attends the University of the District of Columbia. Woods admonished the audience to stay focused on school and not fall into a pattern of drug use, for such a lifestyle can easily lead to unexpected homelessness.
Francine Triplett also grew up in Washington. She started off by challenging the audience to guess why she ended up homeless, and after nobody could figure it out, revealed that she had been in an abusive relationship and simply decided one morning that “enough was enough”. So she hopped on a bus to DuPont Park where she began her life as a homeless person. Triplett talked of immediately shown “the ropes” by other homeless people who were frequently used drugs and alcohol to try and make life on the street a little more bearable.
While moving from park to park, she was able to get a job at a Burger King and eventually started earning enough money to stay in a hotel in Virginia one night per week. One of the hardest things about hopelessness for Triplett was the amazing lack of regard or even acknowledgement that she received from passers-by. She told the story of seeing one woman day after day and saying “Good morning” again and again and never receiving a response. Triplett also suffered from depression and now sees a therapist weekly. She eventually connected strongly with a caseworker at a shelter and now works at a church. She closed with a definitive statement: “Being homeless is no joke.”
John Harrison was the last to tell his story, a cautionary tale for all Swarthmore students. Harrison grew up in a modest but safe home and, in his own words “did well enough that I didn’t need to go to college.” His lack of higher education would not become a problem for a long time, as he made a comfortable life for himself as a middle manager and even bought a house in a Maryland suburb. Then, tragedy struck. His company was bought out, and soon after their housecleaning cost Harrison his job, his house burned down. Without a college degree, he was virtually unemployable, and the shock of all the misfortune made it difficult for him to put his life back together. Harrison had lived a fairly solitary life and now found that he was without friends to help him in his time of need. He advised the audience to not end up in the same situation. Harrison, who is still homeless, talked of being given a “rude awakening” by homelessness and says he now wants to help other people.
Michael O’Neill, representing the National Coalition for the Homeless, opened and closed the discussion. He talked about the CAVE-ing plan to help the homeless–Contribute, Advocate, Volunteer, and Educate. But he also emphasized the easy ways for a person to help. “You don’t have to give money. Just say hello.” For more information on the National Coalition for the Homeless, visit http://www.nationalhomeless.org