"Being poor, and its corollary, being homeless, is a crushing burden to bear," Gregory Elliot, professor of sociology, told an intimate audience in MacMillan 115 at the Rhode Island Hunger and Homelessness Teach-In on Thursday evening. At the teach-in, sponsored by the Community Health Departmental Undergraduate Group and Kappa Alpha Theta, three panelists discussed the social and psychological consequences of extreme poverty before answering audience questions.
"The worst form of violence is poverty," Elliot said, echoing Mahatma Gandhi. The poor, and particularly the homeless, "feel invisible," said Jessica Salter, vice president of development at Amos House, Rhode Island's largest soup kitchen and a provider of professional training and support for the homeless.
When the individual's need to matter is not met and "you get the message everyday that you don't matter to the powers that be," one way to "compel mattering is to do socially disruptive things," Elliot said.
This explains why "90 percent of people who come to (Amos') programs have a criminal record," said Salter.
Elliot noted society's dangerous distinction between the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor — the former whose situation is no fault of their own, and the latter who are held responsible for their situation and are therefore disqualified from public empathy.
"No one sits around as a child and dreams of being homeless," Salter said, "we have to be less comfortable keeping people at arms length, or things just don't change."
Asher Oser, a Rabbi whose synagogue is in partnership with Cross-Roads Homeless Shelter, is engaging with the issue by providing meals for 350 homeless people each Sunday. His program addresses "mattering and delinquency" not only by providing for the homeless, but also by accepting volunteers who have been turned down to perform community service as punishment elsewhere.
"If you can give individuals the skills and the opportunities, most people do really want to take the steps to change their lives," Salter said.
After the discussion, many of the students signed a petition to increase funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which will be sent to Governor Donald Carcieri '65.
Students in attendance said they thought the panelists were insightful.
"It was really informative to hear three different perspectives on homelessness and think about the issue on so many different levels," said Marie Ripa '12.
Danielle Crumley '12 said, "It helped me to understand the cyclical nature of poverty."