Earlier this week, at George Washington University in Washington, DC the student chapter of Amnesty International hosted a sleep out to help students better understand the issues of poverty and homelessness. NCH speaker Steve Thomas attended and gave the students a first person perspective on what it is like to sleep outside in the nation’s capital.
Each fall,Washington D.C.teems with incoming freshmen from all over the nation… Oftentimes, these students get a glimpse of homelessness for the first time as they roam the streets during their first few weeks. But for the students of Georgetown School of Nursing, Georgetown University, George Washington University, and American University, the encounter took place face-to-face. For years, the NCH’s Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau has presented to the first-year students at these universities, in the case of Georgetown, since 1989.This year, between August 24th and 29th, NCH’s Speaker’s Bureau spoke to nearly 600 incoming students at these universities, where many of the young adults were personally confronted with this issue, and given a fresh perspective on the experience of homelessness.
The Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau is one of NCH’s longest-standing and most successful programs. Through the program, panels of people who currently are or have been homeless present their personal experiences to groups of all ages and backgrounds. The Washington D.C. branch of the Bureau has been educating the public through these presentations for 15 years, and in the past 4 years NCH Speaker’s Bureaus have sprung up in Maryland, Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. The Bureau’s approach is unique in that it empowers those who have been affected by homelessness to directly advocate for themselves and others, and bridge the gap between themselves and their audience, who have often never seen the faces of homelessness up-close. As the Speaker’s Bureau shares the often unexpected variety of paths that can lead to homelessness, the negative view of homelessness as a personal problem is challenged and perceptions of the issue are re-evaluated. In 2010, the Speaker’s Bureau spoke 270 times, reaching a combined audience of 15,000, and 2011 is shaping up to beat that number by a landslide, with over 400 bookings.
This August, each of the three undergraduate presentations was given to incoming freshmen in specially-designed community service programs, and their responses were overwhelmingly positive. Freshman Peter Sacco, from George Washington University’s Community Building Community early move-in program, felt the experience “forced me to re-examine my perceptions of homeless…I used to look at these unfortunate souls as lower level people, whose poor choices in life forced them into their own predicaments. But I desperately want to change this perspective.” He has since reached out to NCH to take part in the 48 Hour Homeless Challenge later this year.
Speaker Jackie Grimball made her debut as an NCH Speaker the GWU program. Her story, which includes an elite family background, a privileged life, and “the best private schools that money could buy, along with a Masters from George Washington University” had an enormous impact on the audience. As it sunk in to the audience that she was speaking to her Alma mater, Ms. Grimball “noticed one young lady in the audience whose mouth dropped.” She also shared that she “could not help but be amazed at the reaction of the students as I was talking to them about my family’s rejection of me when they found out my plight. I saw a few of them crying.” Ms. Grimball received a standing ovation for her presentation, a response which aptly reflects her assessment of the evening: “I believe the GWU students’ reaction was that I was still able to ‘stand’ and I am still ‘standing.’”
Donald Whitehead, one of the presenters at American University, is one of the country’s most notable experts on homelessness. As a former Executive Director of NCH, and two terms as President of NCH’s board, he has been active in the Bureau for years. According to him, speaking to incoming freshmen at American’s Freshman Service Experience “has always been one of my favorite speaking engagements,” but this year he felt “there was something special in the room…The questions that were asked by this year’s group were extremely insightful. As a presenter, I left with a genuine sense of hope that at least for one night there was a room full of amazing young people that truly believe that we can and will ‘Bring America Home.’”
Georgetown School of Nursing and Health Studies invited Steve Thomas of the Speaker’s Bureau to present in accordance with their induction ceremony, where the incoming students swear to the values of upholding the common good, and advocating for social justice, among others. “Universally, everyone in attendance was deeply moved by your presentation,” Samuel Aronson, the Assistant Director of Academic Affairs, later told NCH. “This kind of engagement is something I have never before witnessed,” Arnson said after the nursing students voluntarily gathered the next day to share their response to the presentation. One of the attendees reflected that Mr. Thomas’ “ability to bring us into his dark hour of despair and share with us the hope and kindness he thankfully found was something I will not forget.” Another shared “deep gratitude” with Mr. Thomas, “for his willingness to share his thoughts, feelings and experiences with us.” An article about the Georgetown Nursing event can be found here.
These events are just a handful of the thousands of times that NCH’s Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau has impacted audiences by allowing people who have often never interacted with people experiencing homelessness to hear what it is like, and encouraging both parties to learn and discuss what they can actively do to end it. For more information on our speakers themselves, booking a Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau event, or starting a Speaker’s Bureau in your area, please visit the Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau website.
– Adeline Pearson, Fall 2011 Intern
The following piece is a speech that was presented by a participant of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau after her trip to Washington, DC:
Someone once said, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”
Before DC, my classmates and I were just like everyone else, we feared what we did not understand and therefore we did our best to avoid it. We go about our lives ignoring the bad, because we believe it cannot happen to us, but honestly, I don’t think any of us truly believe that.
It is crazy how one moment can alter your entire outlook on life, making you realize that up until that moment, you had not understood life itself. After a day of lobbying in DC, we went to the Thurgood Marshall Community Center to hear a program on homelessness. We would be hearing stories from people who had once been homeless and were now sharing there stories with others.
As a normal teenager, I was thinking, “This is gonna be boring, hopefully I will be able to take a nap.” But, from the moment the first man opened his mouth to speak, I was hooked, and by the end of the program, I found myself in tears. Whether they were tears of sorrow for those people and what they went through, or tears of my guilt in feeling so unaware of what is going on in the world, I knew from that moment I had to help. I know my classmates had that same feeling too. As we walked out of the building to the metro, there was a homeless man sitting on the steps of a restaurant, I opened my wallet along with my other classmates, and put in a dollar. The look on his face was priceless, and from then on, the rest of the trip we all decided to help the homeless, not only by giving them money, but most importantly, by letting them know we cared.
On our last night in DC, about five of my classmates and I along with Rabbi Ed wanted to do one last thing. After dinner, we walked over the pharmacy and bought packs of goldfish, granola bars and Koolaid. We each chipped in about two dollars, and with that we were on our way.
We were on a search to find those people in need, the ones who get ignored on the streets, the ones who are looked at and thought of as lazy and dumb. We were on a mission, that mission was to find those people, and not just to give them the food we had bought, but to make them feel like they weren’t alone in this world, and to let them know there were still people who cared and wanted to help them.
From DC I learned a lot, but I never thought I would view homeless people to be an inspiration. Each morning they awake to nothing, looking for somewhere to go, for food to eat, and shelter for warmth. These challenges all arise to them before we even awake in the morning. We go about our days complaining about our gross school lunches, our lack of sleep, our loads of homework, and much more. But, we never stop to think of how amazing our lives are, and how we should thank our parents for everything they do for us, and how in one moment all of that can be gone. We could have everything taken away from us at any time, our family, friends, house, school. But no, we don’t think about those things. Why you might ask? Because we don’t believe it could ever happen to us. Until now.
So I would like to thank my parents, friends, and Rabbi, for helping me open my eyes to the real world that surrounds me. And lastly, thank you DC, without you I would still be in fear of what I did not understand, but now that I understand it, life seems to mean all the more.
John Burroughs School