People are not blight
Editor’s note: Voices for Human Needs is pleased to welcome guest authors James Grinnell, James Abro and Bret Stephenson. Their bios appear beneath this post.
By James Grinnell, James Abro and Bret Stephenson
In April 2016, Reno, Nevada began using a $1 million blight mitigation fund to restore parts of the city that had become derelict and dilapidated. Plans include the demolition of vacant buildings, restoration of others, and an overall cleanup of the area.
While most citizens of Reno applauded these efforts to revitalize afflicted parts of the city’s physical landscape, many were appalled when the city’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable residents were not being treated with the same care and attention. In fact, the opposite was taking place: $10,000 of the fund was used to remove public benches where the homeless congregated and rested on. Additionally, otherwise homeless campers living along the wooded Truckee River, which provided privacy for their campsites, were evicted and their campsites demolished.
Unlike the physical properties that were being restored or replaced, residents’ lives were being disregarded, discarded and destroyed.
The city council enacted statutes banning sleeping in cars, unpermitted camping, panhandling, and sitting or lying down in certain public spaces. These were ostensibly passed to promote public safety, but one has to ask if making the homeless less visible makes the public more safe? Or do these kinds of measures only add to the divide between the well-off and those who are not – stoking tension, aggravating resentment, and creating an atmosphere that invites violent confrontations?
It made me, a resident of Reno, wonder why so many people in our community feel compelled to create homeless-free zones the same way they do smoke-free zones? It’s not as if second-hand homelessness has the same negative health effects. Still, many people living in more fortunate circumstances seem to have the attitude, “Be homeless if you have to, just don’t be homeless around me”.
Homelessness and poverty have always been a part of the American experience. In fact, homelessness in America has been documented since at least the 1640’s. In 400 years, it seems that little has changed with respect to our attitudes regarding homelessness, and how our communities respond to it.
In March 2016, just a month before the blight referendum was passed, I attended a Youth Summit at the Boys and Girls Club of Truckee Meadows, Nevada. The goal of the event was to kick-off a two-year plan for ending youth homelessness in Reno. It was part of a larger initiative being led by Renown Health to rethink children’s health in our community. The event was attended by representatives from various agencies that serve the homeless community, as well as some of the youths who have benefited from these programs. A couple of these young adults shared their personal stories.
One of the youths who spoke was a nineteen-year-old named Sierrah. Her story is indicative of the way we so casually misrepresent and equate physical blight with personal blight, ignoring the achievements made by people rising up out of their beleaguered circumstances. By doing this we miss the whole point of why we are trying to revive our cities in the first place: to improve peoples’ lives, not just restore things.
Sierrah spent most of her high school years as a “Child in Transition,” a phrase used by the local school district representatives when referring to their homeless students. Sierrah’s personal story is one of tenacity and resiliency in the face of hardship that would be difficult for most people to imagine. While it is clear that there are some things in her life that she is bitter about, she remained optimistic that a better future awaited her. Most importantly for her and others in similar circumstances is that she saw herself as a survivor, not a victim.
Sierrah frequently had to cope with a lack of stable housing, food insecurity, a lack of access to the internet, or even just a quiet place to study. She sometimes went to school unbathed or dressed in dirty clothes. She endured the ridicule and cruelty directed at her by students from more fortunate circumstances. She battled the soft bigotry of low expectations – the tacit assumption that she would end up becoming a drug addict, or a pregnant high school dropout, or one of our other misconceptions about what it means to be “properly poor” or “properly homeless.” In other words, all she could hope for was to become another “blight on society.”
She spoke about the humiliation she felt when she carried a box of food and a bag of clothes she was presented with through the school halls for all to see. She, like every other high schooler, cares deeply about image, appearance, respect, belonging, and fitting in. These acts of “charity,” though certainly appreciated, were reminders that she was different, maybe “less than.” Despite all this, she not only showed up to school every day, she excelled. Sierrah achieved a 3.06 GPA, made numerous media appearances, and completed Advanced Placement classes.
Sierrah was keenly aware that her successes would not have been possible without the support of some extraordinarily kind and caring people. When she spoke of her teachers, she did so with great affection, as they often supported her in ways that far exceeded their job descriptions and responsibilities as her teachers. For example, her band director stood in for her parents when Sierrah felt she had personal issues to talk about that she couldn’t bring up to her parents. Her teachers also allowed her to do laundry in their homes when she may have otherwise had to wear dirty clothes to school.
The word blight carries a strong emotional connotation; when used in a sentence about someone, it paints an irrevocably negative mental image of that person. If one wanted to label a group of humans in a most unconstructive way, characterizing them as blight would be a good way to do it. The implicit or explicit labeling of people as blight serves to ultimately dehumanize them and make it more palatable to deny them the respect, compassion and care they deserve from a civil society. All labeling really does is help us to find a false sense of personal comfort when treating another human being in a manner that we would not like or accept being treated ourselves. In the end, labeling hurts and diminishes us all.
As Sierrah’s story attests, when we conceive of methods for mitigating blight – bringing places back to renewed life – we must not forget or neglect the most important part of the equation: the people who live in those places. Too often we do. That needs to change.
Symptoms of an Empathy Crisis?
The story playing out in Reno is alarming, but it is not unique. Communities across the country have enacted various anti-homeless laws, and one has to wonder if these measures only validate the empathy crisis that MIT researcher Sherry Turkle writes about in her book “Reclaiming Conversation.”
In her book, Turkle cites a recent Pew Research study that found a forty percent decline in empathy among college students over the past twenty years, with much of this decline happening in just the past ten years. Turkle attributes much of this decline to the widespread use of smartphones and our preference for texting over face-to-face conversation.
William Deresiewicz has been teaching in Ivy League schools for two decades. In his book “Excellent Sheep,” he talks about the scores of students he’s encountered who have come to school with impressive resumes exhibiting long lists of accomplishments and accolades, but have lacked passion, direction, and a sense of purpose in their lives.
Harvard University and 50 other universities responded to this phenomenon of declining empathy with their Making Caring Common initiative. Rather than assembling long brag sheets of accomplishments for their college applications, the schools are encouraging prospective students to demonstrate “meaningful academic engagement and spirited, passionate learning, and meaningful ethical engagement.” These schools, through their admissions practices, are promoting community engagement, concern for others, and concern for the greater good.
It is in this spirit that we invite students in grades 7 – 12 to participate in The 2017 Steve Gruetzmacher Homeless Awareness Essay Contest, the goal of which is to sensitize the participants to some of the issues associated with homelessness, dispel some misconceptions about homelessness, and cultivate a bit of empathy and respect for those in our communities experiencing homelessness. The contest has a top prize of $1000, with additional awards contingent on the level of participation. The application deadline is Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017.
About the Authors:
John Grinnell is an engineer, a long time education reform advocate, and, more recently, an advocate for the homeless. In 2016, he sponsored a nationwide high school essay contest in hopes of motivating elite students to think more deeply about homelessness. He continues to work in his home state of Nevada to raise awareness of this issue.
James Abro is the author of “Facing Homelessness.” He is also a grass roots anti-poverty activist in his community, as well as a national advocate for Homeless Citizens Rights. James helps others write about homelessness and poverty, providing editing and writing assistance. His articles have appeared in The Nation, and for blogs published by the Center for American Progress, The Coalition on Human Needs and others. He is an active member of The Kairos Center for Religion, Rights and Social Justice.
Bret Stephenson is the author of “From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age” and “The Undercurrents of Adolescence: Tracking the Evolution of Modern Adolescence and Delinquency Through Classic Cinema.” He has been a counselor of at-risk and high-risk adolescents for almost 30 years. Bret has worked in residential treatment, clinical counseling agencies, group homes, private counseling, foster parent training, Independent Living Program, and has managed mentoring and tutoring programs.