Don't Turn Yourself Off
This Thursday night, 100 students plan to sleep out in cardboard shelters on Baker lawn. With temperatures dropping and our first snowfall this week, you're probably curious about why we will be doing such a thing. The sleep-out, as well as the movie and discussion that will precede it, is one of a number of events being held this week in conjunction with National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.
The word "awareness" has been used quite a bit at Dartmouth lately. Several of the events organized last week in response to recent incidents were designed to raise "awareness" of the need for sensitivity and respect on campus. But what does this word really mean? For me, awareness begins with exposure, whether through a book, a conversation or a personal experience. Exposure alone will not lead to awareness, however, for it can often be a passive experience. Awareness requires personal investment: a willingness not just to hear about, read about or see something problematic, but to allow yourself to take it on as your own problem, to be troubled by it.
Consider this fact, for example: The average age of a homeless person in America is nine. Nine. That's how old I was when I went to summer camp for the first time, was Wilbur and Orville Wright's sister in our class play and got my first pair of glasses. Here's another one: On any given night, 750,000 Americans will be without shelter.
Awareness can be a scary thing, because once we allow ourselves to connect emotionally to a problem that comes to our attention, we feel compelled to act. An issue as serious and complex as homelessness is difficult for most of us to act on. Half of the women and children who are homeless in this country are fleeing from domestic abuse, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Declining wages and a lack of affordable rental housing are major causes of homelessness in the U.S. How can we, as Dartmouth students, act to address these root causes of homelessness?
If you were unable to answer that question, do not stop reading. Do not stop thinking about this issue. (If you do have an answer, by god, blitz me!) All too often, we allow ourselves to stop thinking about societal issues that are troubling to us because we just can't figure out how to solve them. The only thing I have to say about that is this: please don't turn off your curiosity and your emotions just because you don't have the answers. Don't be discouraged because you don't know how to help 750,000 people find housing tonight. Instead of turning away or giving up, talk to others who are concerned and learn more. Acknowledge that feeling in your gut that tells you that your ideal world would not include nine year-old children without a decent place to sleep.
I would like to invite you to spend Thursday evening with me and a group of other students who are interested in learning about, discussing and reflecting on the issue of homelessness. We will begin by watching a movie called "The Homeless Home Video." This movie documents the lives of five homeless persons and two homeless outreach workers over the course of one year. Following the movie, we will break into small discussion groups. I imagine that there will be much to discuss, since most of us are unfamiliar with the day-to-day challenges of being homeless. If you had planned to attend the Native Americans at Dartmouth's Mascot Forum at that time, please join us for our candlelight vigil on the Green later. This portion of the evening will include students and guests sharing stories, poems and thoughts about homelessness. The sleep-out on Baker Lawn that will follow the vigil will provide students with the opportunity to absorb and reflect upon the evening's experience without the distractions of blitzmail or the telephone.
Come join us. Expand your understanding, strengthen your ideals and allow yourself to be convinced that we CAN do something about homelessness.