“If you want to know what a homeless person looks like, just look in the mirror!”
Joe Finn, Executive Director and President of the Mass. Homeless and Shelter Alliance (MHSA), spoke those words to a group of mostly Grade 7 Archbishop Williams High School students, breaking down the stereotypes about who homeless people are and what they look like.
Peter, a former homeless person joined Finn at the podium to share his own story (to protect his identity, only Peter’s first name is used). “It’s not about a single type of person,” said Peter, who has lived in Quincy’s Father Bill’s homeless shelter twice, once for about a year and a half, and the other time for about seven years.
Unlike the stereotype that homeless persons are alcoholics and drug addicts, Peter is neither. But breaking that preconception isn’t easy, he said. He explained how he had saved some money and was meeting with a prospective landlord to rent an apartment.
“I had my first and last month’s deposit, and when I told him that I lived in a shelter, I had to tell him that I was not a drinker and not a drug addict before he gave me a chance,” Peter said.
“Lots of alcoholics and addicts are not homeless,” said Finn, who previously was the Executive Director of Father Bill’s, “but drugs and alcohol can exacerbate a homeless situation.”
Unlike the stereotypes that homeless persons don’t work or are lazy, Peter did work, but just couldn’t make enough money to afford an apartment. The first time he was homeless, he sold his car to survive, and then sought employment at locations served by public transportation. Finn emphasized that 40% of homeless persons have jobs, but the jobs are so low-paying and without benefits, that they can’t afford to rent apartments.
While homeless, Peter even worked as a volunteer for the City of Quincy and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), helping to set up emergency shelters at the high school during extreme weather events. Today, Peter lives in an apartment and is now married.
The solution for many homeless is affordable housing, Finn said. Unfortunately, he noted, there are two fast-growing segments of the population that are experiencing homelessness: a new wave of people in the 18-30 age group who may be part of the opioid crisis; and families, mostly comprised of single mothers with children. “It’s difficult to work if you’re caring for young children, and more difficult if there is no other family support,” Finn said.
Finn was never homeless himself but has been in recovery from alcoholism for 30 years. He especially appreciated during his visit, that Archbishop Williams High School as a Catholic school, is inspired by a commitment to social justice and helping others.
“I love how in the Catholic tradition, that it’s not just about ‘me’,” Finn said. “Social justice teaching really focuses on the common good. We have a responsibility as part of our faith to relieve suffering when we see it, to address problems when we see them,” he said.
Finn explained that beyond the stereotypes, there are three types of homelessness: transitory, episodic, and chronic. Despite the perception that most homeless people live in cities where they solicit spare change at intersections or are spending their time on cold days sleeping on top of buildings’ heat vents, most homeless - about 80 percent - are in the transitory category because of a temporary economic crisis such as a lost job. Episodic homeless are people who are in and out of homelessness and shelters for a number of reasons. Chronic or long-term homeless persons also have a number of issues to deal with, but are a relatively small percentage of the group. To further clarify characteristics of homeless persons, Finn noted that about 60 percent of homeless persons have a substance abuse issue, and about 80 percent have a mental health issue.
Peter and Finn’s presentation was part of the Faces of the Homeless program sponsored by the MHSA. It was funded by a grant from the National Coalition for the Homeless to create a leadership program whereby homeless persons are trained in public speaking. The presentation was timed by Campus Minister David Gilpin to coincide with the school’s Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week.
“Becoming aware of hunger, homelessness and poverty is important for all in the Archbishop Williams High School community,” said Gilpin. “It’s important to bring that awareness to everyone, to break down stereotypes and preconceived notions about homelessness and poverty, to know that a homeless person is not what they picture in their heads, but can in fact be any person at any time.”
The presentation by Peter and Finn succeeded in opening the eyes of students to the reality of homelessness, and showed them there is hope for those struggling to survive.
“It’s not about being different, but unlucky,” said seventh grade student Gabrielle Sellars after the presentation, “Homelessness can happen to anyone. He really told us his whole story, even though it wasn’t always a happy one. I liked at the end how he married his girlfriend.”
Classmate Thomas McCarthy was equally appreciative of what he learned. “He had to sell his car,“ McCarthy said. “Most people don’t have to do that. He was homeless and now he is better. One time you can be low and homeless, and later be back home again.”
Other related events to raise awareness at the school included: Grade 11 Social Justice classes participated in a Hunger Banquet where they were divided into three worldwide economic classes to have meals from meager to bountiful depending on their status; students in all grades contributed to a food drive sponsored by the National Junior Honor Society with the items earmarked for Catholic Charities; Grade 7 students were scheduled to visit the Greater Boston Food Bank and the School on Wheels programs to deliver in-kind donations collected by Peer Ministers during lunch periods; 7th graders viewed the movie, Little Red Wagon, an inspirational story about a boy helping homeless kids. As a culmination of the week, eight students and Campus Ministers Gilpin and James Leonard helped the homeless, working in the soup kitchen at Arlington Street Church in Boston on Friday night, and the next morning, serving breakfast at the Boston Rescue Mission.