GW F.E.E.D. has received a great deal of attention lately, mostly focused on their attempts to get a substantial amount of funding. Lost in this debate, however, has been reflection on theassumption homelessness is not already being addressed. In fact, everything that GW F.E.E.D. attempts to do is already being done on campus and throughout D.C. – and to a greater extent than GW F.E.E.D. will likely accomplish. Moreover, these existing opportunities generally avoid the patronizing attitude of GW F.E.E.D. towards the homeless.
First, GW F.E.E.D. seeks to raise awareness about homelessness in Foggy Bottom. Yet raising awareness means more than telling students that homeless individuals live in our community. We know this. We pass them every day on the streets. Raising awareness involves deeper education about the issue of homelessness: Why are people homeless? What are common factors contributing to homelessness? Who is homeless? What are their demographic characteristics? For how long are they homeless? Wearing T-shirts and hanging banners will not educate students on the root causes of homelessness or the structural changes that are necessary to eradicate homelessness.
Fortunately, there are groups on campus raising this kind of awareness. Every November, the Office of Community Service Neighbors Project sponsors several events during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, culminating with the Fannie Mae Help the Homeless Walk on the National Mall. Additionally the Neighbors Project, Class Council, Student Movement for Real Change and the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship organized a Sleep Out for the Homeless in University Yard last spring.
The educational series “D.C. 101” brings in experts on pertinent community issues such as homelessness and gentrification. And this is by no means an exhaustive list. Programs like these offer students the chance to learn from social service providers and homeless advocates themselves, challenging stereotypes about the homeless and educating attendees about the realities of homelessness.
GW F.E.E.D. has arranged a fund-raising program with Starbucks. Yet numerous homeless service agencies already provide meal programs, notably D.C. Central Kitchen. This “community kitchen” takes recycled food from restaurants, catering services and grocery stores and re-prepares it into 4,000 meals per day that are sent to area homeless service centers and after-school programs. These meals are nutritionally balanced and already reach a broad segment of the homeless population. Students that want to volunteer with organizations such as D.C. Central Kitchen can contact the Office of Community Service, which has partnerships with 60 community agencies focusing on a range of social issues.
Finally, their T-shirts proudly proclaim that GW F.E.E.D. is “moving humanity forward.” This attitude is rather patronizing. While initiative and compassion are laudable characteristics, who are we to think that we are responsible for the progress of humanity? Our attitude towards service should not be to reach down to those lowly poor in need of our assistance, but to engage in a process of mutual learning and growth. We should do what we can to empower the homeless to combat the problem of homelessness themselves. After all, who could be more knowledgeable on the issue than the people directly affected? As Pema Ch?dr?n said, “true compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves, but from realizing our kinship with all beings.” That is moving humanity forward.
I do not mean to be overly harsh towards GW F.E.E.D. These students may indeed have the best of intentions, and I applaud their effort to take an active role in our D.C. community. If they are serious about impacting the level of homelessness in Foggy Bottom and improving the quality of life of all our community members, then they should look to strengthen existing organizations that know more about homelessness and concrete ways to make a lasting contribution.
The writer is a senior majoring in sociology.