Civic Engagement

Civic Engagement

This past Wednesday I completed the first portion of my on-site civic engagement duties. Civic engagement is a mini ten-hour community service project/seminar run through TWC. On the first day of orientation, each student chooses a civic engagement project. I chose "Homelessness." The other projects include Veterans, Animal Welfare, Torture Abolition, Immigration and others. I chose Homelessness because living in Washington, D.C., homelessness is a problem that is impossible to ignore. There are homeless people in every neighborhood in D.C. and in some neighborhoods they are on every corner. When I walk by a homeless man or woman, they sometimes ask me for money or wave a cup indicating they would like me to place change in it. Each time this happens, my thought process is the same. First, I reach into my pocket to see what change or small bills I have for them -- what is just pocket change to me, might provide sustenance for them. Then I remember warnings that I've heard; giving money to the homeless just allows them to engage in activities that perpetuate poverty. I remember hearing that homeless men and women often use the money they're given to buy drugs and alcohol instead of food and water. I never really know what the right decision is; if I should give them money or if I should refrain. So when I saw that there was a civic engagement project geared towards helping the homeless, and gaining a better understanding of their circumstances and predicament, I decided it was the right project for me.

In this project we meet four times and perform two community services activities. The first meeting was an introductory meeting and the second was a panel in which two formerly homeless men and one formerly homeless woman came to speak about their experiences. I learned a lot from that panel. One of the speakers, a tall, large and charismatic black man named Steve, explained to us how he became homeless. He had a job, but no one had ever taught him how to save money, so when he ended up losing his job (as a result of drug use) he had no money in the bank and became homeless. Steve told us that for many homeless people, it is not always a drug problem that leads to their displacement. It is often a lack of employment, not a lack of effort, that leads to homelessness. I realize now that many people have not been taught to set up bank accounts, or put away money for later -- it seems like such a simple idea to me, but it is not for many people -- and in this economy, with layoffs so frequent and employment so hard to come by, a lack of knowledge on fiscal responsibility can lead to homelessness. The most compelling portion of Steve's story was when he talked about how to help the homeless. In D.C., he says, the homeless do not go hungry. Food banks abound and church groups are always around, in parks and on streets, handing out meals. The biggest issue in D.C. is the way the homeless are treated. People stare up at sky scrapers, or down at their feet, as they pass the homeless. They make derogatory gestures and sit as far away as possible on the metro. They whisper about them, call them names, kick over their carts, throw urine at them -- really horrifying behavior. This is what stuck out the most to me, and so when I pass homeless men and women on the way to work, I at least try and wish them a nice day.

I kept this in mind when I completed the first portion of my community service. I traveled to O street in NoMa to the location of the "SOME" building. SOME stands for So Others Might Eat. It is a wonderful organization that offers food, showers, addiction treatment, and programs that help men and women take back control of their lives. SOME runs on a tight schedule, because treatment is more effective when there is a regulated schedule. I arrived at 6:45a to help serve food. It was a little more fast-paced than I imagined it would be -- people come in quickly and it can be difficult to keep up. I was putting bagels on plates, and it seemed like my arms could not move fast enough to keep up with the throngs of people coming in. There were other volunteers from TWC, but also from the local community, which I was happy to see. The employees who worked at SOME full-time were gracious and kind and I enjoyed my morning there. The most important thing I kept in mind while serving the food was to treat these men and women as equals, because I do not know where they came from and what they're circumstances are, only that they are human just like me.

So now I am half way through my civic engagement project and I am looking forward to completing the other half. I am sure I will write another post about my civic engagement project after I complete it.

Till next time,


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