Sometimes the best way to understand someone is to spend some time in their shoes.
Recently, the JCC Activists' Club did exactly that. In order to help raise awareness about homelessness and better understand how difficult homelessness is, club members spent the night outside in cardboard boxes.
"We're out here raising awareness for poverty and homelessness in Western New York," said Christina King, club member. "We're doing our best to show we care, as well as gain a bit of perspective."
Members of the JCC Activists’ Club spent the night outside on Saturday to promote homelessness awareness in the community.
P-J photo by Remington Whitcomb
According to King, the USDA recognizes two census tracts in the Jamestown area as "food deserts," which mean that there are a large amount of people in the area who are more than a mile away from a grocery store. Additionally, King said that the St. Susan Soup Kitchen serves more than 100,000 free meals every year to Jamestown residents, on average.
"There are over 73,000 (meals served) by the soup kitchen so far this year, so they are on a record-setting pace," said Shannon Bessette, anthropology professor at JCC. "It's not a good record to be breaking."
Several members of the club discussed the growing problem of cultural apathy toward the homeless. They said many people think that homelessness is a result of laziness or bad decision making, when usually it is a result of incontrollable circumstances, such as disease."
"People think that it is really easy to avoid homelessness," said Bessette. "We're not just talking about pure homelessness, either. Yes, there are people that sleep in the streets, but there are also people who have less than ideal living situations. They may be forced to (sleep on a couch at a friend's house) but they do not have a home of their own. Additionally, over 50 percent of bankruptcies in the United States are caused as a result of people experiencing health problems. Even something that may not be a permanent illness can put strain upon your living situation, and no one is immune to disease. It can happen to anyone at anytime. So many families live paycheck to paycheck, and one small problem could really turn into a major disaster."
Bessette said homelessness and poverty are problems that affect everyone in the community. As an example, children who are homeless do not perform well in school because they are constantly hungry and tired. Though they are given the same conditions in school as every other child, their conditions outside of school still greatly affects them. It is likely that those children will never live up to their potential, and therefore the paradigm of homelessness and poverty cannot change.
"Twenty-one percent of all children are below the poverty threshold in the United States," said Janine Smithingell, club member. "While there are some opportunities for children, it simply isn't enough. There needs to be more opportunities for impoverished women with children to attend school. Social Services will pay for child care while a woman is at work, but not while she is attending classes to further her education. There currently is no system in place to help impoverished women with children become better educated, so the problem will always linger."
According to King, a little bit of effort from average citizens of Chautauqua County could go a long way to help resolve the current homelessness epidemic.
"I think that effort from local residents doing their part of volunteer at local soup kitchens and donating old, lightly used clothing could help so much," said King."
"I think we need to get serious," said Bessette. "Such a large portion of the homeless people in the area are either mentally ill or veterans. We have a veterans' job bill that did not get passed by Congress. We have veterans coming home to foreclosures. We need to get serious about Social Services and stop playing politics with such important bills (such as the veterans' job bill)."
The club agreed that spending the night in the cold has provided a wealth of perspective into the lives of the homeless.
"We take for granted that, when we accidentally step in a puddle, we can go home and warm our feet and change our socks, but the homeless can't do that," said King. "The smallest thing could turn into something life-threatening for the homeless."
The Activists' Club encourages anyone who is willing to contact a local agency that works with the homeless and ask about volunteering. Additionally, the Activists' Club is holding a food drive at JCC, which will run through November. Boxes will be scattered around JCC where residents may drop off nonperishable food items, which will then be used to help feed the needy. For more information on the food drive or how to donate, call JCC's main office at 338-1000.
"At the very least, I would ask that everyone go out and simply meet someone who does not share the same quality of life as they do," said Bessette. "Our society is becoming increasingly segregated by class. Wealthy people live in wealthy neighborhoods and poor people live in poor neighborhoods just go out and meet someone who is not like you. It is easy to isolate yourself and not act when you don't have to see people who are suffering, but when you start putting faces to that suffering, I think it can really change your perspective. Perspective is everything."