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News, University News

HOPE hosts first annual summit

13 anti-poverty student groups attend three-day event, work to build sustainable network

Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2018

More than 100 students gathered at the University this weekend for the first annual Summit on Homelessness and Poverty. Attendees represented 13 student groups engaged in anti-poverty work at institutions as close as the University of Rhode Island and as far away as Vanderbilt University.

The summit, which was hosted by the advocacy and outreach group Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere and sponsored by the University’s urban studies department, included keynote speakers, breakout sessions and workshops led primarily by representatives from student groups and community organizations.

Among the workshop leaders were individuals who have experienced homelessness, including Jesse Hardy, founder of Jesse’s Homeless Outreach Project in New Haven, Connecticut.

“I want people to see that love … that we should have for each other, whether you’re homeless or not,” Hardy told The Herald. “You don’t always have to have money to help each other, you can just talk to people.” It is important for students to hear from speakers like Hardy to remember the importance of working with, and not for, people experiencing homelessness, Gabriel Zimmerman ’18, executive director of HOPE and Nathaniel Pettit ’20, HOPE’s education chair, said.

“I think we’re trying to be very mindful from the get-go of the reality of our positionality as students at elite schools and at a general place of relative comfort to a lot of people we’re trying to serve,” Pettit said.

At the same time, Zimmerman said students should know that they can make a difference.“We really want to encourage people to go down and work with community organizations and put their money where their mouth is when talking about social justice,” Zimmerman said.

Friday night’s keynote featured Dr. Sam Tsemberis, who developed the “Housing First” model for addressing chronic homelessness. With Tsemberis’s method, individuals experiencing homelessness receive permanent housing and then address other issues, such as addiction and mental health.

In more traditional interventions, “the attention was on the treatment of the condition, rather than including the person in a conversation about … the solution to what was ailing them,” Tsemberis said in his address.

The Housing First model has helped to virtually eliminate homelessness in Finland and has dramatically reduced homelessness among veterans in the United States, Tsemberis said.

“If only there was a political will to get that enacted nation-wide in different state and local policies,” Zimmerman said. “Some people think ‘oh, homelessness is intractable, it’s always been an issue in America,’ (but) there’s a way to solve this.”

Dr. James O’Connell, who helped found the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program in 1985, delivered a keynote address Saturday on street outreach and health care for individuals experiencing homelessness. O’Connell served as a “prime example” for those who are interested in learning how medicine can have social value, Pettit said, adding that “medicine is inherently based in social justice.”

“It’s just inspiring to see the way groups here just have really strong footholds in their communities,” said Emmett Werbel, a student at Columbia who attended the conference with Project for the Homeless at Columbia. “They’ve found a way to channel the resources of their universities into … effective, appropriate solutions, and I think that’s just given everybody from my club a lot of ideas.”

Developing connections with other student groups engaged in anti-poverty work is valuable, students who attended the conference said.“I think the goal was always to bring people together,” Zimmerman said. “We need to have collaboration to really innovate and make a difference on behalf of people experiencing homelessness.”

Members of the HOPE leadership team said they would like the summit to grow and potentially be hosted at a different university every year.

“I would love if we could transition from school to school … just because then you get the different perspectives, the different locations, the different community partners,” said HOPE’s Communications Director Katherine Garry ’20. “It’s definitely, I’m hoping, going to grow.”

In the meantime, members of the student organizations are planning to stay in touch through a Facebook group created during the summit. This network will help HOPE fine-tune its outreach and advocacy work, Garry added.

“I hope it can just remind us (of) the importance of this work and really just get us doing it on a broader scale,” she said.

The summit occurred during the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, which began in 1967 and concluded in June 1968, two months after King’s assassination, according to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute. Zimmerman said this concurrence has symbolic significance.

“The idea of (King’s) campaign was (to) bring together a multiracial, multiethnic, multi-income coalition to fundamentally change — he called it the revolution of values— the way we look at poverty in the United States,” Zimmerman said. “All the people we work with are already involved in trying to make that change happen, and hopefully … we can actually achieve the goal of continuing our communal efforts to follow the vision that King set 50 years ago.”

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