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A Personal Look into a Systemic Issue: Experiencing Homelessness

Posted By by Misty Denham-Barrett | Rutgers University | She, Her, Hers, Wednesday, April 24, 2019

A Personal Look into a Systemic Issue: Experiencing Homelessness

by Misty Denham-Barrett | Rutgers University | She, Her, Hers


I recently served as a staff partner for an Alternative Break trip offered by the University I work at. I went with 45 first-year students, 6 student site leaders, and 2 other staff members to Washington, D.C. My experience that week was nothing short of profound. The mission of our trip was to engage in serving learning and community service aimed at serving the DC community members experiencing homelessness and/or food insecurity. Despite being one of the wealthiest cities and home to many forms of “power”, DC has the highest rate of homelessness in the US. 


During our week in DC, we spent time with various groups doing amazing work in the community from an organization called “A Wider Circle” which assists families and individuals transitioning out of homelessness as well as an organization called “Casa Ruby,” DC’s only shelter for LGBTQ+ community members. We spent time at other organizations within DC as well but these two were probably the most impactful for me personally and I’m beyond thankful for what I learned from this experience. 


This trip was particularly difficult for me because I have experienced homelessness first hand. As a child, my family was homeless for various amounts of time on and off as we tried to get back on our feet. I’ve stayed in shelters, slept on park benches, and lived out of a car. This was all before the age of 12. This is a part of my life I don’t often talk about or share. There are people in my life who I trust wholeheartedly who don’t know this part of my story. I think I keep this part of me away because of shame. There isn’t much that I feel shame about because I’m proud of who I am, but homelessness is different. I’ve been out with people and seen how they look at someone who is experiencing homelessness. I’ve heard the things people say about the “bum on the street.” What would they say if they knew that was me and my family once? 


So why I am writing about this now…. why should you care? Homelessness is not something that many people like to talk about, yet it’s something that many people face, especially in the United States. The most recent national estimate for those experiencing homelessness in the US in 2017 was 553,742. Likely the number is much higher depending on how one defines “homelessness.” 


Ending homelessness and poverty has less to do with you giving that person on the side of the highway or the person couched outside your favorite Starbucks a snack pack or $20. While it will likely help their immediate situation, it doesn’t solve the problem. Homelessness and poverty are direct results of oppressive systems throughout the infrastructure of this country. While volunteering in DC, we met an elderly woman who is a fulltime English teacher, yet the housing in DC is so expensive that she is living at a shelter. Her job as a teacher doesn’t pay enough for her to afford to put a roof over her own head. Housing inequity and gentrification are pushing people out of their homes. The lack of affordable housing is a HUGE issue across the United States, preventing many folks experiencing homelessness from having a stable place to live. The rising cost of housing is just ONE of many systems in this country that do not serve our communities well. You can look into inequity in education, environmental racism, the inflated cost of food, and I could go on and on. 


So now what? All I ask of you is to be an active citizen in your communities. Go to community meetings. Vote in your local elections. Talk to your City Council members. Donate your furniture you would normally throw out just because you wanted something new to a place like “A Wider Circle.” Whether you have kids or not, look into how your taxes are spent on the schools in your district. Take an interest in your communities. These might seem like things that don’t matter, but I promise you that they do. 

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