Faces of Homelessness Panel Educates Rollins Students

November 06, 2009

Helping Hands Across AmericaIn conjunction with the Helping Hands Across America food drive, Rollins raised awareness on its campus about hunger issues in Central Florida.

“As a higher learning institution, we should not only push to raise cans for Second Harvest Food Bank, but also to educate our students, both inside and outside the classroom, on how they can make a lasting impact against the local and national issue of hunger,” said Director of Multicultural Affairs Mahjabeen Rafiuddin.  

In order to help educate the community, Rollins hosted a guest panel from the Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau who spoke in the Cornell Campus Center during the lunchtime common hour on Tuesday, November 3. The event was coordinated by AmeriCorps VISTA and the Rollins Offices of Community Engagement, Multicultural Affairs, and Student Involvement and Leadership. Students, faculty, and staff were invited to forgo their usual noontime meal to and instead lunch on standard soup kitchen fare in recognition of the over 350,000 people in Central Florida at risk of going hungry each day. Donations from the meal went towards the Helping Hands Across America food drive. 

As a program of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Faces of Homelessness consists of individuals who are currently homeless or have been homeless in the past. In the opening remarks, statistics given by Christine Tudhope of the Faces of Homelessness Speaker Bureau staff revealed that only 18 percent of all homeless individuals match the stereotypical image of the homeless person as a substance-addicted male vagrant. Approximately 40 percent of America’s homeless are women and children and another 40 percent are veterans in need of medical care.

“Our intention in having these speakers here today is to spark conversations that change attitudes. Homelessness and hunger are issues that can affect just about anyone and this message needs to be spread,” said AmeriCorps VISTA Gabriel Anderson.

When the two guest speakers came to the microphone to share their personal experiences as homeless men, they spoke in an honest, upfront manner. Skip Cowan shared his account of growing up too fast – not finishing high school, taking a printing job at a young age, becoming a working alcoholic, contracting an illness from 20 years of exposure to print dust, having his position eliminated, and finally moving home to take care of his elderly parents. Shortly after their passing, he found himself homeless and alone.

“I’ve lived in this area my entire life, but there’s no friends when you’re homeless,” Cowan said. “It’s really just horrible. There’s a lot of really great people out there without a place to live.” 

He has taken a keen interest in the criminalization of and violence against the local homeless. For the past four years, Florida has ranked #1 in the number of violent actions committed against the homeless population. Cowan hopes to help change that statistic. 

Richard Torres then spoke of his honorable service in the Special Operations division of the United States military, where he learned three foreign languages and visited 27 countries. Upon his return home to his family, he found a suitable job as a medical manufacturing technician, but after several years he lost this income to outsourcing. As he tried desperately to find work, he moved several times, but often found was overqualified and that his connections in other countries discredited his trustworthiness.

“A year and a half ago, I didn’t think I’d be in this position. I’m a people person,” Torres remarked. “We have to take care of our community, our people. That’s one thing I have retained from the military.” Torres has managed to find transitional housing for his family at Families in Transition a program with the Seminole County Public Schools, but his message remains one of acceptance and perseverance for his community who still live on the street.

In closing, Faces of Homelessness Speaker Bureau Coordinator Hugo Esquival shared his indignation at the treatment of the hunger concerns people without homes face daily. He has taken an active role in striving to change city laws that criminalize the feeding of the homeless.

“What most people don’t realize is that it is less expensive to rehabilitate and re-house the homeless than it is to continue to allow them to wallow in homelessness,” said Esquival. They are constantly arrested for loitering or trespassing and in detoxification wards in emergency rooms. This costs a lot of money to the tax payer.

Cost aside, Esquival and the Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau see great value in restoring dignity and respect to the members of the Central Florida community who find themselves in difficult circumstances. Through their interaction with Rollins students, they are one step closer to the paradigm shift they so earnestly seek.  

-Kristin Schendel '10

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