Demanding Change

April 4, 2014

Jana Foxe is a Community Fellow for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE). Here she reflects about her work with HOPE and how its model redefines community service as an entity that incorporates advocacy.

Over the course of the past four semesters, I have spent a good deal of my time working in a local soup kitchen and walking with our street outreach team, and my fellow ‘HOPEsters’ have done much, similar work.

We’ve been feeding the hungry, and directing street homeless to shelters, and it has given us great understanding of the homeless community and their needs. Yet we know that there are limits to the traditional notions of ‘serving the homeless’. When we serve a plate of hot food for someone who cannot afford it himself, we do not solve the problem of hunger. When we get someone off a freezing winter street and into a shelter for the night, we do not solve the problem of homelessness. We may be helping people, and our work has sometimes proven to be life-saving, but without a more substantial element to our work other than direct service, we are merely maintaining broken, band-aid solutions for the much deeper problems of poverty.

If we don’t apply our knowledge to advocate for change for the homeless community, it is knowledge gone to waste. Nevertheless, there’s no formula for an instant advocate, so our volunteers need to spend time cultivating relationships with the homeless community, and gaining an understanding of the challenges the homeless face. This is why our volunteer programs remain invaluable.

HOPE knows that you can’t expect change, you have to demand it, and the only way we can do that is by taking political action, in solidarity with the community. This semester, we are lobbying on bills to ease the burden of foreclosure on Rhode Island families, and we are also lobbying at the State House for numerous causes, including allocating funding for more affordable housing across the state.

However, the more political work we do can seem overwhelming, intimidating, or worse, irrelevant. I see changing that perception as the biggest challenge HOPE faces going ahead. It’s remarkably difficult to fill a van with people to go canvassing, when more of our members want to volunteer at soup kitchens or on outreach, likely because that aligns with a familiar image of community service that badly needs revision. That said, I believe the best way to serve this particular marginalized population is to take their fight and to move it center-stage, because the homeless community cannot win their battles alone. Rent won’t go down if we don’t fight for it, affordable homes won’t be built if we don’t demand them, and banks will continue to evict families from their homes unless we stop them. This is why we have to advocate in solidarity with the homeless, and we have to knock on doors for them, speak to politicians for them, and protest with them. We have to be the voice that too many of them feel they don’t have, and we have to ensure that students understand that too.

But before we do that, we need to change how we view effective community service. We must evaluate the work we do not by hours spent volunteering, but by bills passed, groups mobilized and citizens empowered, and I am proud to say that HOPE is gradually leading this charge in redefining good community service.