Charles Nailen/The Hoya Neil Avery, of Miriam’s Poets, reads his poetry and offers advice to students in Uncommon Grounds Wednesday evening.

Hoya Outreach Programs and Education presented a series of events this week as a part of the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week

H.O.P.E aimed to educate the Georgetown community about the terrible poverty that people in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. experience everyday. “We are hoping that Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week . will allow Georgetown students to understand the humanity and need of people who, in the end, are very similar to us,” director of H.O.P.E.’s External and Georgetown Relations Martha Heinemann (SFS ’05) said. “We are sponsoring [it] to get Georgetown students aware, educated and active.”

A “Faces of Homelessness” panel took place Thursday night. The panel consisted of Sylvia Bridgewater and a woman who identified herself as Renee, two individuals who were willing to share their life stories and experiences with homelessness.

Donald Whitehead, the director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, an organization that deals with housing justice, economic justice, health care justice and protecting the civil rights of homeless people around the nation, also participated.

Renee began her story by speaking about her childhood as an orphan. It was when Renee began drinking at the age of 21 and experimenting with drugs like crack cocaine that her life took a turn for the worse. Turning to criminal activity, she stopped caring about personal hygiene and almost died of pneumonia from being out on the streets.

“You sleep on the sidewalk,” Renee said, “and people just walk by you.”

After much self-determination and will, Renee finally decided that she was tired of that life, she said. She has been substance-free for six years and recently finished construction trade school. “I have to have the strength in me to say `one day at a time,'” Renee explained.

Bridgewater also relayed her struggle to overcome a life of despair. She found herself homeless after emigrating from Ghana 20 years ago. She stressed that life often takes unexpected turns, relaying the encounters she would have everyday with homeless people who were once CEOs or had gotten their PhDs. “You never know where you will end up in life,” she said.

Bridgewater also emphasized that most homeless people are not mentally sick but simply want someone to talk to. “A lot of the time they don’t need the money,” she said, “they just need you to sit with them.” For her, the most important thing is that people show that they care and give hope to these people on the streets.

Whitehead spoke of his own life experiences with homelessness – going from an abusive childhood, to being voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school, to life on the streets battling addiction and finally to director of the NCH. “When I come up here in a suit and a tie,” he said, “you could have never guessed that I was once wearing tattered clothing.”

The worst part of homelessness was being considered invisible, he said. “No one looked into my eyes,” Whitehead said. “They either looked around me or right through me.”

Whitehead also spoke about certain legislation that the NCH is working to support. The National Housing Trust Fund Act, a universal health care resolution, programs for the education of homeless children and a day labor protection bill are just some of the legislation that are recently starting to generate significant interest. For Whitehead, the eptiome of homelessness legislation is the Bringing America Home Act, which will soon be introduced to Congress.

Heinemann maintains that events such as this one give Georgetown students an opportunity to learn about the real situation of homelessness in D.C. She was very pleased with the combination of personal stories and political legislation that was discussed. “It is important that people start to gain knowledge. I am so glad that that we were able to educate, even if it was a small group of people.”

On Monday evening, a dinner and discussion was held about developing respectful and useful relationships in service. Participants included Kathleen Maas-Weigert, the head of the Center for Social Justice, and Dion, a man currently experiencing homelessness as well as volunteer coordinators and social workers from a number of local service agencies.

H.O.P.E. encouraged students to sign letters to their U.S. Representatives and Senators asking them to support the National Housing Trust Fund Act as part of the National Day of Housing Action on Wednesday. The act aims to provide 1.5 million new units of affordable housing.

Wednesday night at Uncommon Grounds, H.O.P.E. sponsored a poetry reading by the Miriam’s Kitchen Poets, a group of homeless individuals who gather after breakfast at Miriam’s Kitchen to express themselves through poetry. According to Heinemann, this was an incredible opportunity to learn about the situation of homelessness from “the other side.”

To wrap up the week, H.O.P.E. and InterHall will be leading a group of students and faculty to the Help the Homeless Walkathon on the National Mall tomorrow. The Fannie Mae Foundation will donate $50 to agencies that serve homeless people in D.C. for each person who registers and donates $5. Students who are interested can sign up to walk at H.O.P.E.’s table in Red Square.

While Heinemann believes that the Georgetown student body is very aware of poverty, she does not think that it realizes its underlying political reasons. “I’m quite sure that they don’t know that they can take important political steps to solve hunger and homelessness.” She believes that Georgetown students, through internships and jobs, have access to the ears of the people who make the decisions in our country. “Georgetown students should use these privileges to help those who don’t have any political power,” Heinemann said.

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