On Wednesday, Feb. 11, student groups Hunger and Homelessness and Middletown Potluck will cosponsor a screening of a PBS documentary called “Home at Last?” to be followed by a Q&A session with current and former homeless individuals living in Middletown.
In addition to the two groups at Wesleyan, the event is also being sponsored by local members of the Leadership, Empowerment, Advocacy Development (LEAD) training program, run by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, all of whom are or have once been homeless. This event is the first time that either group has teamed up with LEAD. Members of LEAD will present brief accounts of their experiences with homelessness after the screening.
This event is part of an effort by all groups to raise awareness about how widespread poverty and homelessness are in the United States. One of the main goals of the screening is to demonstrate that homelessness can exist in a less-general context than is often assumed. While it is a major global crisis, homelessness also has a very immediate presence, and LEAD asserts that part of becoming more knowledgeable about homelessness is seeing its local existence as well as its nation-wide urgency.
Lydia Brewster, a director at the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen in Middletown, suggested the movie and has played a large part in planning the event.
“[Members of LEAD] share their stories in an effort to demystify,” Brewster said. “[They also hope] to reduce the stereotypes that exist related to the homeless.”
Last semester, Fred Ayres ’17 and Evan Bieder ’15, co-chairs of Hunger and Homelessness, conducted a survey to measure the campus’ awareness about the prevalence of these issues, the results of which were released in an effort to promote the event.
“While some students’ answers were pretty accurate, many were far off,” Bieder said.
Lack of education about homelessness is not a problem specific to the University. Ayres mentioned that popular media outlets such as BuzzFeed and YouTube have helped bridged this knowledge gap with short videos and articles, but society as a whole knows very little about the extent of the issue. This results in a marginalization of homeless individuals, and it leads to unfounded assumptions about their lives.
“Thankfully, some people are quite cognizant of this ignorance and want to better understand these issues as well as help bring them to an end,” Ayres wrote in an email to The Argus.
The groups hopes that hearing from current and former homeless individuals will enable students to see the homeless population more sympathetically by hearing firsthand experiences.
“It is best to listen…instead of projecting or co-opting a reality we have not personally experienced,” Bieder said.
In addition to raising awareness about these issues, Hunger and Homelessness acts as an umbrella for three volunteer programs in the Office of Community Service: Bread Salvage, Food Rescue, and Habitat for Humanity.
Since their focus this semester is on improving the general public’s knowledge regarding homelessness, Bieder and Ayres hope that the event will spark discussion around campus.
“Home at Last?” is a 30-minute documentary that features a housing program operated by Pathways, a non-profit organization that seeks to end homelessness by providing free permanent homes to those who need them. The documentary focuses on treating the homeless as humans, rather than problems that need to be solved, and it explores the dehumanization that our society assigns to this population.
“Evan and I thought [the documentary] would be an appropriate introduction to the housing issues prevalent in the U.S. as well as create dialogue about the current actions being taken by our government and non-profits,” Ayres wrote.
The Hunger and Homelessness group interacts frequently with related organizations in Middletown. The Food Rescue division of the group donates unused items to the Saving Grace Food Pantry, and the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen works with the group to plan events.
This event is also a conscious effort to strengthen the University’s connection with Middletown.
The Middletown Potluck group, a collective that hosts themed dinners to bring together University students and the Middletown community, has chosen to cosponsor the screening since it helps strengthen the relationship between students and Middletown residents.
Since many attendees of the potluck dinners are or once were homeless, the ideals of the potluck group speak to those of the “Home at Last?” screening—to treat the homeless population as fellow humans and truly listen to what they have to say.
These students believe that this event is the first step toward effective change by starting the conversation about homelessness and examining it up close.
“Of course, solving our country’s biggest problems isn’t as simple as watching a half-hour documentary,” Ayres wrote. “But it’s a great place to start.”