Gimme shelter: Your call

An introduction to KU journalism students' project on the Lawrence Community Shelter

photo

Photo by Ian Nyquist

Lawrence Community Shelter volunteer and former beneficiary, Matt Hollar.

Over the next few days, stories and photos and video — gathered by graduate journalism students in KU’s J840 Communicating Social and Environmental Messages class — will be posted here leading up to this Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, where the potential expansion of Lawrence's only homeless shelter will be on the agenda.


My feelings about homelessness are complicated. I once felt the same way many of you probably do—occasionally scared and often irritated when I was asked to extend myself beyond my means and help a scruffy stranger.

The first thought that crept into my head was, “Why me?” But now it’s followed by an additional set of thoughts and actions that are far more thoughtful and compassionate; starting with, “Why not me?”

As you can read in the homelessness op-ed I wrote with KU School of Social Welfare Associate Professor Mark Holter, homelessness affects more than 2.1 million American adults and 1.3 million children each year. Poverty is the biggest risk factor, compounded by substance abuse and mental and physical illness. There is another key contributor that explains why we all have to band together and help solve this problem: the loss of safety nets that allow us to stay afloat. In these unstable economic times, more people are struggling to make ends meet and find gainful employment. (Who among us isn’t just a little worried about job security – or doesn’t know someone who was recently laid off or is having trouble finding work?) Joblessness and unemployment are up and fewer people have the means to support friends and family members who may be going through hard times. The safety nets many people once relied upon are disappearing.

Envision the downward trajectory: you lose your job, you can’t make your house payments or pay rent, you get sick. . .and so it goes. For more than one out of ten Kansans living below the poverty line, this precarious scenario could be a reality. The situation is even worse in Douglas County, where about one in five live below the poverty line.

There has been a 9 percent increase in homeless families in the state of Kansas in the last year and every one of our local schools educates homeless kids. That said, Lawrence is no homeless Mecca. Seventy-five percent of our homeless population is comprised of local residents with nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, we were named one of the “meanest” cities for the homeless by the US National Coalition for the Homeless in 2006 (but got ourselves off the most recent 2008 list). While statistics don’t tell the whole story, they start to explain why our homeless rates continue to grow and why we need to expand the capacity of the only shelter we have.

Past Event

Lawrence City Commission meeting

  • Tuesday, August 4, 2009, 6:35 p.m.
  • City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets, Lawrence
  • All ages / Free

More

This project on homelessness is borne out of a desire to debunk misconceptions about the homeless and understand how people ended up on the streets. Over the next few days, stories and photos and video — gathered by graduate journalism students in KU’s J840 Communicating Social and Environmental Messages class — will be posted here leading up to this Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, where the issue of Lawrence homelessness will be on the agenda.

My understanding of this issue shifted and my frustration waned once I understood the homeless not as a monolithic population but as individuals who have fallen on hard times. I am not alone. Information and communication help us make sense of all issues and all kinds of people. This reflection from one of the class members says it best:

“As I interviewed clients at the Lawrence Community Shelter for my group’s service-learning project, the topic that was brought to my attention most frequently was society’s perception of homelessness and the homeless themselves. Homeless individuals are stigmatized as “a bunch of drunks and crazies” as one interviewee stated. What I found more interesting than the homeless’ understanding of how they are perceived is how this image affects the way they see themselves. How can one person ever change the way a man sees himself?

As I spoke with one man living in the shelter after he lost everything to divorce, I started to pick up on a major difference in the words he used to describe himself and his actions. “Can’t…” “Dirty…” “Sad…” Down…” I never once heard an uplifting or positive phrase come from his mouth unless he was speaking about the Shelter and its workers. He often brought the discussion back to public perceptions of the homeless.

Homelessness goes so much deeper than lack of money and food. The homelessness need help regaining their influence and voice in the world. . .

Thinking of homelessness as small parts of a larger whole makes me feel a little bit bigger. Everything I do, no matter how small, helps give the homeless a voice.”

Past Event

Lawrence City Commission meeting

  • Tuesday, August 4, 2009, 6:35 p.m.
  • City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets, Lawrence
  • All ages / Free

More

Homelessness is not an easy or glamorous choice. It is the result of a number of challenges that put people in a precarious place. This series takes you into the shelter, shows you mat spaces on the floor, people crammed into tiny rooms just to get bowls of cereal and safe places to sleep and the extraordinary attempts of the Lawrence Community Shelter to provide people with critical support to get through hard times. At this Tuesday’s meeting, the City Commission will discuss whether or not to expand the special use permit and allow the Lawrence Community Shelter to double its capacity. If this series inspires something in you, act: write a letter to the City Commission or come to City Hall at 6:30pm on August 4th and let your voice be heard.
—Simran Sethi is a sustainability journalist and the Lacy C. Haynes Visiting Professional Chair at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications.



All stories on the Lawrence Community Shelter collected by KU's Communicating Social and Environmental Messages class:
Gimme shelter: your call (Aug. 1)
Gimme shelter: More than a chance encounter, a choice (Aug. 2)
Gimme shelter: The Lawrence Community Shelter family (Aug. 3)
Gimme shelter: Community leaders (Aug. 4)
A walk through Lawrence's only shelter for the homeless (photogallery)
Talking with supporters of the Lawrence Community Shelter (audio interviews)
Homeless in Lawrence: More than you may know (video)

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