A New Approach in Solutions for Homelessness

First off, hello! My name is Laura Stephens, and I’ll be working at the William and Mary Office of Community Engagement this summer. I’m a (really, as in like a month ago) recent graduate of the college. I had an awesome time in undergrad, and I’m really happy that I get to extend my time with the College a few months longer!

I’ll be blogging once a week this summer about issues related to community engagement. I could connect with a social issue, an awesome project that the OCE Office or William and Mary Students are involved in, or whatever strikes my fancy that day.

So for my first blog, I figured I’d start off with talking about an issue that I think is really important and often neglected: homelessness, and what some really creative people are doing about it.

I can’t imagine how difficult it is to be homeless. Different circumstances can bring a person to this place, including loss of income, physical or mental illness, personal tragedy, or just plain bad luck. Regardless of how they get there, people who are homeless often have to deal with extreme cold or heat without shelter, lack of sanitation, lack of food, lack of health care, and lack of social capital (such as contacts or paperwork, or even a cell phone), to improve their situation. On top of everything else, they often encounter the stigma or blind eye that society turns on them for their circumstances.

The causes of homelessness are deep-rooted and complex and I don’t pretend to have a full understanding of them. However, I can say that the stereotype that people who are homeless don’t seek employment is untrue, at least in my experience. I’ve met people who are homeless who are also employed, but their income just isn’t sufficient to provide them with shelter. It’s a blog post for another day to get into that, but I think it definitely says a lot about how society is structured.

I think the most important thing to remember though, when one considers this issue is that the people involved are human. Elvis Summers thinks so too. A California native, he made headlines a couple of months ago when he began innovating a new approach to providing shelter.

It all started when he began to form a friendship with a woman in his neighborhood, Irene “Smokie” McGhee.  After the death of her husband 10 years prior, she had lost her home since she couldn’t pay the mortgage any more.  It started to really bother Summers when he realized her situation, because as he put it, “She’s a human being, 60 years old, a mother, grandmother, sleeping in the dirt. It’s just not right,” he said.”

So he came up with a creative new idea, based on the housing first approach, the idea that before the other issues in one’s life can be resolved, a person must first have shelter. He created a small house that is 3.5 X 8 feet in size, and cost him less than $500 to create. It has insulation, a door, and a key. But most importantly, it provides McGhee with a place that she can go to be safer and more sheltered, and the dignity that comes with that. Because he built the home with wheels, the LAPD allow the home with the regulation that it needs to be moved every 72 hours.

Summers’ idea is taking off. People are beginning to realize how this approach to homelessness could be a practical and creative way to provide more people with shelter. He’s created an organization, called “Tiny House Huge Purpose” with a GoFundMe campaign to go with it, and is working with local contractors, organizations, and volunteers to create more of these homes. He is working on involving recipients of the homes in their construction and potentially paying them to do so, which would provide them with at least temporary employment and greater agency in their circumstances.

His idea isn’t perfect; one homelessness advocate Mark Redmond, while admiring the concept, has mentioned that the homes don’t have any kind of plumbing. He’s also cautioned that if this isn’t done correctly, it could create shanty town communities instead of long term solutions.

So this isn’t a fool-proof plan. But I personally do think it is a good one. I think that it could be a great first step to a longer term solution. I think it could at least provide a safer place to rest at night, and an insulated place to go for people who contend with extreme cold. (Although I think providing a space heater could make it even better).  I don’t think that the goal should be to live in one of these homes forever, but I think it could be a good first step.

So because we’re from William and Mary, our natural next question is, “What can I do?” Well, an obvious first idea is to consider donating to the GoFundMe page. A next step would be to consider what you can do in your local community. Here in Williamsburg, there are lots of awesome organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Housing Partnerships, Avalon, and Greater Williamsburg Outreach Mission, to name a few. You can stand with people who are homeless when they face discrimination. But most of all, if you encounter someone who is homeless, as long as you feel safe, you can try to engage with them.

Instead of seeing stereotypes, you can take the time to hear their individual story. How did they get there? What are their wants and needs? Are they a veteran still carrying the scars of war, whether physical or mental? Are they contending with illness? Have they suffered from violence or discrimination? But more than that, what makes them funny? What are their favorite foods? What are their pet peeves? Who do they love? Like all of us, people who are homeless are so much more than the sum of their tragedies.

One of my favorite quotes by the amazing Mother Teresa is “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.” When someone contends with homelessness, they may suffer all of these things, and they are human like anyone else. Treating someone who is homeless with dignity and love can be the first step in alleviating this suffering, and beginning to truly connect as friends.

Nic Martinez: Passing on the spirit of service

OCE Community Profile Series
By Graham Bryant ’13 | July 30, 2013

When you think of the qualities and dedication exemplified by William & Mary’s many active citizen service-learners, the image you conjure is inevitably one of someone like Nic Martinez ’14. As president of the College’s Nu Rho chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed service fraternity and one of the largest community service organizations at William & Mary, Martinez helps coordinate the efforts of around 300 service-minded students dedicated to meeting the needs of Williamsburg and beyond. When not working with APO, the government major and economics minor frequently devotes his time to OCE projects and events, passing along his passion for service learning the College’s next generation of engaged scholars. We sat down with Martinez to talk about his experiences and future plans.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Nic Martinez: Since freshman year I have been on numerous trips with Branch Out Alternative Breaks. They range from going to Nicaragua with Bridges to Community, to driving down to Newport News to work with Habitat for Humanity. This past spring I traveled to Philadelphia to assess homelessness and income inequality. I led the Housing and Healthcare 7 Generations Pre-Orientation trip to the Eastern Shore. Among other things, I have worked locally with the Habitat ReStore and Campus Kitchens. The OCE helps me always stay busy!

OCE: Tell me about your experiences as a 7G co-leader. What were your responsibilities and what trip did you work on? What did you gain from the experience?

NM: One the face of it, the trip was focused on the housing and healthcare situation of migrant workers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. But throughout the trip, I realized the issues at hand were interchangeable with any other issue. The real learning experience was facilitating human interaction and compassion. I have been on trips in the past as a participant, but by leading a trip, I was able to pass on the spirit of direct action, service learning, and sustainable social reform. I also get to introduce incoming freshmen to the College, which is always awesome.

OCE: Can you tell me about your involvement in APO and briefly discuss what APO does in the community?

NM: This past fall I became the president of Alpha Phi Omega. One of my favorite aspects of APO is the community that we provide for people to feel more comfortable seeking out direct service. Having a network of friends that one can do service with is key to facilitating action. I remember being a freshman and I had no idea where to go to do community service. APO guides members to the OCE and creates the social pathway to find new resources and opportunities.

OCE: How have these roles contributed to community needs?

NM: The OCE and APO alike both have short term goals: helping those in need with direct action. For example, bringing pre-made meals to low-income community members is a short-term solution. Then there is a middle term goal of learning about the problem at hand and really understanding it. It’s important to realize why the problems exist in the first place, while factoring in many different variables. In the long-run, I hope that students will go on to post-graduate work with these problems and goals in mind, thereby raising their social issue awareness.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

NM: It involves learning about the process of social change. Helping feed others or picking up trash in a campus clean-up project is important. This is the dirty work to social change. It is also very important to know the reasons for excessive littering on campus and how we can alleviate it. Finally, active political and social participation in the future is needed so that we can shape our community and policy in a way that fixes the issues.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?

NM: I’m government major with a minor in economics. I enjoy pondering the issues that affect our society and the political discourse that goes along with these issues. Understanding the economics behind social issues is also very important to me.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?

NM: I plan on studying further in public administration or public policy. I will always stay politically active and hope to shape the policy in my community.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?

NM: I helped people without permanent housing sell a street newspaper in Philadelphia. For the first time in my life I felt invisible and worthless because people walking by on the streets thought I was homeless too and ignored me. It really helped me see things in a new perspective and change my views about the socioeconomic conditions in urban areas.

Graham Bryant