Fighting Homelessness with Homes not Laws

by Allison Woodworth ’16.5
March 31, 2015

Allison Woodworth is a co-coordinator for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE), a student run organization that works to end homelessness in RI. 

I grew up in a city that is known for its year-round flip flop weather, military bases, woeful professional sports teams, and its IN-N-OUT franchises. Unfortunately, San Diego’s homeless population ranks fifth in the nation, a large percent of which is made up of veterans.

Many areas in San Diego present a stark visual dichotomy between affluence and homelessness. During my senior year in high school, I witnessed a truly cringe-worthy piece of city history. A so called “community activist” namd Viti attempted to organize people to sit on benches for 3 hour shift outside businesses solely to keep the homeless from doing so.

The San Diego Union Tribune reported that: “Viti oversees a program sponsored by Promote La Jolla, a nonprofit merchants association that coordinates the placement of benches donated by the public. Some donors become upset when they see transients passed out on benches they've dedicated to a loved one, Viti said.”

Viti’s blatant inability to see the homeless as fellow humans horrified me. (Thankfully it horrified a lot of people and her movement was quashed.) It also made me realize how easy it is for communities to dehumanize people that many of us walk by every day. However, I didn’t really start to understand the systematic loopholes that undergird homelessness until I joined Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE).

Mass homelessness in the US is a relatively recent social problem, and it has nothing to do with an increase in lazy people. Rising poverty, lack of affordable housing, deinstitutionalization, public assistance cuts, foreclosure practices, predatory lending and many other structural deficiencies have coalesced in the past half century to make homelessness a sad reality for a growing number of Americans.

Recognizing the structural arrangements that drive homelessness is an important step in humanizing a community that has every right to public space that sheltered people have.

Residents of Silver Lake in Los Angeles complained about frequent public urination by the homeless. The neighborhood responded by creating and disseminating "hygiene maps" of public restroom/shower facilities to the homeless. This is an example of a community that recognized a problem and enacted positive change.

Have you ever wondered why new benches are often built with dividers? These prevent anyone –namely the homeless – from lying prone and sleeping on them. Providence’s Kennedy Plaza was updated with a host of these anti-homeless benches.

The homeless have no personal space to store their possessions, go to the bathroom, sleep, eat, or just hang out. Think about what you do in your own home. Is what you’re doing illegal if you do it in public?

HOPE members are involved in a plethora of advocacy to end homelessness. We work to educate the community about tenant rights and predatory lending practices with our partners at DARE and the Rhode Island Payday Lending Reform Coalition respectively. Members lobby at the statehouse and help those who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or struggle with mental illness or substance abuse apply for SSDI/SSI applications with SOAR.

So many policies, practices, and renovations waste energy and finances on marginalizing or criminalizing the homeless. We don’t need fences, anti-homeless spikes, bans on publicly feeding the homeless, or bench warming shifts. We need positive solutions that combat structural inequalities.