Hold on to your hats, everybody; you’re going to see a word I have literally seen people cringe at: “homeless.”
Our society has created a strong negative stigma around those experiencing homelessness and often enforces systemic obstacles to make sure that certain communities of people are stripped of their rights to a home. This needs to change.
Let’s start with the community that we are living in, the Ithaca community. How many of us, when we are walking down The Commons or are by the bus stop at Walmart or Wegmans, see someone who is experiencing homelessness? And how many of us look away, walk away, avoid any sort of contact? I’m not trying to call anyone out right now; I’m inviting you to hear me out.
People say that Ithaca is a bubble. Let’s pop that theory. Ithaca has a population that is experiencing homelessness like any other city. People in the Ithaca community are living without homes, trying to keep their homes or beginning the process of Section 8 to receive public housing. Often, these people are ignored. Last winter, people experiencing homelessness died due to the cold. During the summer, people living in Ithaca’s “Jungle” — a homeless encampment behind Walmart — may not have to worry about the cold, but they do have to worry about extreme heat and the health risks that come with it.
“Just get a job” is not a sentence that is relevant in this situation. Homelessness is systematic; it’s not because of a lack of effort. In many cases of homelessness, including in Ithaca, people do have jobs. They’re working hard to save up, to provide for themselves and their families. But, in life, things happen. This may be an injury, sickness, lack of gas and the list goes on. Forty percent of people living in America are literally one paycheck away from experiencing poverty. That is not due to lack of working hard. This is due to a system that does not want to see its people thrive.
Let’s talk about how there is redlining in Ithaca. Let’s talk about how prices for housing are rising and how students coming to live in the Ithaca community actually allow landlords to boost their prices and push previous residents out of their homes due to cost. Let’s talk about how, in Ithaca, gentrification is real.
Now you may be thinking, “Woah, this is too much. I just got back to school.” Freshmen may be thinking, “I just got here! I need to get used to and find a place within the Ithaca College community before I even start thinking about any of that.” I hear that. That’s real. I also present a challenge to think about how Ithaca College is a part of the Ithaca community. As in any community, we all have choices to make and voices to raise.
We can all create change. We can help people experiencing homelessness through organizations like Second Wind Cottages or Habitat for Humanity. We can listen to their stories about their lives, look up the housing policies in the area and be present and recognize what’s happening around us. If it feels like people not having access to housing or decent housing doesn’t matter or is not relevant to you, it is.
Call your local senator. Get involved. Go to local town hall meetings. Work with existing shelters here in Ithaca. If you have a mind for numbers, think about the intersectionality behind economics and homelessness. If you have a passion for the environment, think about how the increasing climate changes and emergencies can impact people who have housing and how it can impact those who don’t. For those of you whose hearts are in education, think about redlining and how many individuals and families go into public housing as they begin to get onto their feet and how where their home is impacts the quality of education they’ll be able to receive.
Think about what you believe in. I believe that housing is a right. It is not something that should be taken away or stolen from people, yet it continuously is, especially for people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, people experiencing mental illnesses, low-income communities and people with intersectional identities.
Let’s be clear: Homelessness is not due to a person’s lack of trying, lack of effort, lack of smarts or lack of heart. Homelessness is a result of systematic oppression.