Now and then, I volunteer as a consultant for the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness.
A few weeks ago they invited me to join them and other groups in Trenton, N.J. for a day of lobbying politicians regarding issues related to housing and jobs. Many voices, many issues.
I asked the director of the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness, Deb Eliis, if there was only one thing The Coalition could accomplish in the next year, what she would want it to be.
She answered: “A Homeless Shelter in Ocean County.”
Ocean County is where I live. I know that there are seven facilities in Ocean County that house, care for, and try to find permanent living situations for stray animals, but not a single one that provides the same services for humans. Toms River is the second largest township in Ocean County and one of its most affluent. I lived in Toms River until a month ago before I moved into permanent affordable housing in a nearby town. When I lived in Toms River I worked with the faith-based Homeless Outreach mission, so I also know that on any given night in Toms River there are between 30 and 40 people (that we know of) living scattered throughout its wooded areas. In case you have never been to a homeless encampment – and as someone who used to be homeless – I can tell you this: there is no way anyone – no matter your age – can live that way for very long without developing serious physical and mental ailments. These people will sooner or later end up in an Emergency Room, which is the least efficient and most expensive way of not dealing with this problem of homelessness.
My contribution to the meeting in Trenton was to get agreement on not calling it a “homeless shelter” and instead refer to it as an Emergency Housing Relief Center. I feel strongly that words such as ‘shelters’ and ‘the projects’ should be dropped from our vocabularies when we are referring to people living in acute financial distress.
Why? Because words matter.
Check out this vintage 1976 ditty from a former B-list actor in California: “She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”
The ‘she’ is the infamous ‘welfare queen’ who in fact didn’t exist, and the person making the lumpen remark, Ronald Reagan, goes on to become President of the United States in 1980.
The remark helped to turn back a decade of progress in eliminating chronic poverty in America, and marked a significant turning point in American attitudes toward their fellow citizens receiving financial aid and/or food assistance from the government.
Once again, we are back to where we were in the 1970s –defining poverty, rather than just tackling it head on. But this time we have to be ever more vigilant about not letting it be defined by people who are prejudiced and use negative stereotypes. We need a fresh working definition of poverty that reflects peoples’ real life experiences and portrays their personal and financial struggles with dignity and respect.