Teen uses voice to push homelessness legislation
Editor’s note: in the school year 2017-18, student journalists at Summit Public Schools in California were given a project prompt: what does community mean to you? After discussing, the group of students consisting of Giselle Alejo, Michonni Hughes, Judy Ly, Jeana Rose Meneses, and Pauline Velazquez finalized the idea of focusing on the homeless population in San Jose because they felt like, often times when people think of community, the homeless population is quickly dismissed and forgotten. The students interviewed employees at local stores, HomeFirst Sobrato House Adult Center, and the MLK library located right next to San Jose State University. After their article was published, the students were given the opportunity, through the 2018 Steve Gruetzmacher Homeless Awareness Essay Contest, to create follow-up stories on how two high school seniors were individually helping the homeless population: Michael Tracy and Isabella Zou. Today’s guest blog post focuses on Michael.
Contrary to the popular belief that teenagers are unmotivated to help people other than themselves, Michael Tracy is living proof that teens do care. Tracy, a senior at Advanced Technology Academy in Las Vegas, NV, has been developing strategies that will help positively impact the lives of a group targeted by violence.Tracy is currently in the process of trying to pass legislation in Nevada that would officially classify the homeless population as a minority group. The new law would officially categorize crimes against the homeless community as hate crimes.
Since the homeless community is so prevalent in Las Vegas, this law would affect a number of people. In fact, according to an article in Las Vegas Now, for every 10,000 people in Las Vegas, 50 of them are homeless. This makes Las Vegas the fourth highest ranked city in the United States in terms of their homeless population.
Tracy recognized that Nevada’s current hate crime laws are perfectly adequate in terms of providing much-needed protection for a variety of different groups such as the LGBT community and racial minorities, but expressed his discontent with their lack of support for the homeless, explaining, “I think that they’re missing something when they don’t protect homeless people.”
When asked about what might happen if his bill passes, he clarified, “Hate crime laws aren’t meant to eradicate hate, that’s just not going to happen. There’s no way for a law or a piece of paper to just completely abolish hatred.” He explained that although hate will still very much be an issue, the importance of his bill still stands. “It’s symbolic for the people in that group, that demographic, and the people outside that demographic to know that it’s become a problem.”
Although Tracy has a heart for the homeless community now, he touched on how he, and many others, were not aware of the how serious the issues surrounding the homeless community are. In fact, he mentioned that prior to starting his legislative journey he hadn’t given much thought to the homeless at all.
“I pretty much thought about them like any other normal teenager would, being that I didn’t think much of them,” he said, adding: “They weren’t really a part of my life, I didn’t have to encounter them very often, but I tried to help out when I could. To me they were just another people.”
Although Tracy admitted to not always being as empathetic or aware of the situation as he currently is, after his meeting with “the masked man” that he referenced in his essay and doing a bit of research on the forgotten group, he had a drastic shift in perspective. He proudly exclaimed, “Well, I really humanized them; my research with them, it made realize that what happened to them really isn’t necessarily their fault, and I really began to be more sympathetic to their plight.”
Using his own personal experiences, Tracy hopes that through his legislation more people will be able to see that homeless people are just that: people. He explained that just simply talking to them and making the effort to get to know them as human beings can change people’s perspective on the community.
Tracy identified the stigma and problem, not as a form of dislike, but rather fear. He explained, “There’s not much of a difference between us and them, and the fact that we see it as an ‘us’ or ‘them’ is part of the reason that we tend to fear and hate the homeless people, because somewhere within our subconscious, in the back or our minds, we have this inherent fear that we could become like them.”
Tracy further illustrated his claim by adding that homeless people are people just like we are, and one day the tables might turn, and we could find ourselves in their position. “The only difference between us and them is a few bad decisions or bad luck,” he said.
Tracy shared his suspicions that another reason we push these people to the back of our minds is that we are ashamed to admit that we might just have been wrong about them this whole time. “When we see them it’s like they’re holding up a mirror and reflecting back on us that a) as society we haven’t done enough for them and b) we could be them not getting enough done for us,” he said.
Even though currently we may not be doing enough to help the homeless population, Tracy believes that if we start humanizing them and seeing “them” as part of “us” then we could make a real impact on a number of lives.
This issue, however, won’t be solved overnight and he believes that this problem involves all of us, no matter our own current social standing. Tracy expressed this belief by emphasizing, “We’re all connected to each other, there’s a web of interconnectedness that a lot of us seem to take advantage of or just overlook. And if you consider how their lives affect our lives, then you realize that there is an obligation to help those people.”
Tracy acknowledged the fact that while the government is split into two main political parties and these parties usually tend to take two completely different stances on important issues, this is not the case in regards to his bill. He defended his bill by saying, “It affects all of us whether we are Democrat or Republican.”
When asked which representative he wants to sponsor his bill, Tracy quickly responded, “It’s a nonpartisan bill, so it doesn’t matter what side of the line they fall on. The homeless problem is more of a human problem than a partisan problem, so just someone that has that sympathy for the homeless.”