Event looks at homeless experience
By Lindsay Ellis, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, May 7, 2012
Student and faculty panelists spoke about their experiences with and research on homelessness as part of “A Night Without a Home” on Thursday night. Originally, the group planned to sleep on the Gold Coast lawn until 10 a.m. on Friday, but the event was cut short due to rain, according to Shanee Brown ’12, student director of Dartmouth’s Habitat for Humanity chapter.
The audience, fluctuating between five and 20 members, heard discussions, poems and presentations. The group then watched two movies about homelessness, Brown said.
Several panelists recounted their personal experiences with homelessness.
A female member of the Class of 2015 who wished to remain anonymous due to the personal nature of her story spoke of her life on Atlanta’s streets from September to November 2010.
The student, who lived on $2 per day, did not have access to a shelter because she was neither pregnant nor a mother, she said. She slept in a park or under a bridge, cushioned with clothes and pillows from donation boxes, during this time, she said.
She drank a single cup of coffee and consumed cocoa for calories each day and relied on weekly church meals. She could not walk the one and a half miles to the capital area of Atlanta for food stamps due to a lack of energy as a result of her diet, she said.
She turned to half-eaten hamburgers and leftovers discarded by tourists, she said. When she began to ask pedestrians for change, she received between $20 and $100 per day, she said.
“Eventually I realized I couldn’t go on with my pride,” she said.
The student found a place to stay through a “random act of kindness” when a stranger asked if she needed help, she said. Despite this, her biggest resources were other homeless people, including Georgia State University students no longer able to pay tuition and drug addicts, she said.
“Homelessness does not have a face,” she said.
Torrese Ouellette ’12 reflected on months spent living with his family in a Super 8 Motel. Before he came to the College, his mother had neither constant work nor health insurance, he said.
His mother suffered a severe cardiac arrest and was evicted from her home while in the hospital during Ouellette’s sophomore year, he said.
“I’d be playing the Dartmouth game, and I’d rush home after class and work and call my mom to figure out what to do,” he said.
Ouellette said he often blamed himself for not doing enough to help his mother.
“I can tell myself I was sending money and calling her every day,” he said. “She on some level did not feel anyone was caring about her. I know in my heart that I didn’t do enough.”
Other panelists included students and faculty members who have researched homelessness locally and abroad.
Christian Brandt ’12 researched homelessness in Denmark through the anthropology department last summer.
“From my experience, even within a society with such a strong welfare system, it’s as important to deliver food and clothes as it is to distribute knowledge, friendship and interpersonal relations,” Brandt said.
Angela Dunnham ’13 discussed the “lifelong process” of support needed to help people after they leave homeless shelters. Dunnham worked with the Burlington Housing Authority in Burlington, Vt. through her “Policy Analysis and Local Governance” course last year, she said.
Ronald Shaiko, associate director of the Rockefeller Center and a government professor, lead a discussion of Rockefeller Center research on homelessness featuring Nina Brekelmans ’12 and Michael Sanchez ’13, two Policy Research Shop students.
Brekelmans researched shelter services in Vermont and New Hampshire and found that child care programs, including transportation and child care services, helped improve long-term stability after an individual or family left a shelter.
“You hope when people leave shelters they leave for good, but it’s hard to ask shelters to do more,” she said. “They’re already doing so much.”
The topic of homelessness permeated English professor Jeff Sharlet’s journalistic work, he said.
“Homeless people are not beneficiaries, they’re not sponges,” he said. “They’re citizens. Homelessness is always part of the story even when I set out to write about something else.”
Throughout the event, panelists spoke about volunteering on Alternative Spring Break and summer programs. Stew Towle ’12 and Yomalis Rosario ’15 recited poems during the event.
Two movies — “Homelessness in America” (2004) and “The Soloist” (2009) — followed the presentations, but rain caused organizers to stop the projection of “Dark Days” (2000) before its finish, Brown said.
A Safety and Security officer who walked through the demonstrations throughout the night asked Brown to put away the tent that several group members set up, Brown said.
Director of Safety and Security Harry Kinne could not be reached for comment by press time.
The group subsequently left the lawn, which Brown called “a disappointment.”
Events like “A Night Without a Home” help students consider issues of which they were previously unaware, James Doernberg ’15, an attendee who has participated in several Habitat for Humanity builds, said.
He was not “super optimistic,” however, of the event’s ability to increase campus knowledge, especially as attendance decreased throughout the night, he said.
“You need to have things like this to get the conversation started, but we need a way to make it bigger, more seen,” he said.
Maryam Zafer ’12, who attended and led Alternative Spring Break trips to San Francisco that educated students about homelessness and poverty, said that although bringing the issue to Dartmouth is “great,” an “obvious criticism” of the event is its limited scope. The event was advertised in campus-wide blitzes as a night “outside in solidarity with those living without a home.”
“You’re not entirely homeless until you feel that sudden sense of hopelessness and despair,” she said before the event. “In terms of actual empathy for people, I don’t know how much an event like this will develop that.”
The “intellectual empathy” developed by the event, however, brings the issue to campus, a first step the College needs, Zafer said.
Brown based “A Night Without a Home” on a similar event at St. John’s University’s Staten Island campus, where her sister attends, she said. There, homelessness is “more pressing” given the school’s New York location, according to Brown.
“We get very consumed in our Dartmouth bubble,” Sage Dalton ’12, a chair of Students Fighting Hunger, said. “My hope would be that it would increase compassion of our students for those around us.”
Dartmouth’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the Upper Valley Haven, the Haven Homework Club and Students Fighting Hunger sponsored the event, which cost between $500 to $600, Brown said. A bake sale at the event raised $110, which went to the Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity for purchase of building supplies, according to Rachel Newton-Padin ’14, the event’s chair.
Rosario is a member of The Dartmouth Staff.