Invisible Everywhere

Posted on July 13, 2010

I have asked Alison Jones-Nassar, VSH’s volunteer program coordinator, to write this week’s blog. Thanks, Alice

Did you know…that the problem of homelessness manifests itself differently in different countries, but that responses to it reflect universal themes?

According to Wikipedia, there are about 100 million homeless people worldwide. About 3,000,000 people are estimated to be homeless in the European Union, while in Canada that figure is about 150,000. In Australia the official figure is 105,000 and in Japan, between 20,000 – 100,000 people are identified as homeless. In so-called Third World countries, homelessness is rapidly rising due to a variety of factors including poverty, poor urban housing conditions, migration trends, overpopulation, food scarcity, and conflict. Based on available data, one thing seems to be true: homelessness looks very different from one country, region, and continent to the next.

Last week, I had the opportunity to explore this idea when I was asked to participate in a training session for a group of VCU students who are doing a summer social media project in partnership with several Richmond area non-profits. The group consists primarily of Iraqi exchange students (including Kurds), but there are also students from South America and Central Europe.

Among other things, these students are tasked with teaching basic computer and social media skills in a volunteer capacity to residents of Carver district, including some of our tenants from New Clay House. As volunteer program coordinator for Virginia Supportive Housing, it’s my job to prepare these students for interacting one-on-one with our clients, and my training was designed to help these volunteers understand how their knowledge, perceptions, awareness, and sensitivity toward the issue of homelessness could impact their experiences.

Despite the early hour (training began at 8:30 a.m.) the students quickly developed an intense interest in the subject and a lively discussion followed. Coincidentally, one student had already had an encounter with homelessness. In a blog describing her experiences in the US, she wrote about “something negative [that] happened to us that really scared us. We saw a drunk, homeless man, who asked us for money. When we ignored him, he got mad and tried to hurt us. It made us all wonder about the safety in the United States.”

Using this observation to stimulate conversation, I asked them: what is the situation like in your country? What has your exposure been to homeless people there? Why do you think people become homeless there? Why do you think they become homeless here? Do you feel toward the homeless in your country what you felt toward this man?

These questions go way beyond objective understanding to penetrate deeply ingrained value systems regarding personal fault and social obligation, political justice and divine retribution. I won’t pretend to think that I changed anyone’s perspective on the issue, though I do believe it was a very thought-provoking hour and a half for everyone in the room. One thing seems to be universal: people experiencing homelessness are invisible everywhere. People all over the world avert their gazes from the problem and try to pretend it simply doesn’t exist. They shake their heads and pass judgment and are confident it will never happen to them. We can develop our plans and strategies and goals and timelines, but there is still a lot of work to be done where it counts – in the human heart.

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