April 12, 2011
Photo by Jennifer Ritter
Rollins’ 5th Annual Hunger Banquet used a powerful simulation of the harsh reality of unequal wealth distribution to acquaint students with facts that are usually ignored by society.
“I was just expecting a normal dinner where everyone ate the same food and sat at the same table and listened to a presentation and speakers,” said Shalini Allam (Class of 2013).
Assigned to the lower class, Allam was among the majority of attendees at the banquet, meaning she sat on the floor amidst crumbled newspapers and discarded bottles where she ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Only a few feet away, those assigned the roles of middle class individuals ate spaghetti while seated at tables. The select few in the upper class section enjoyed a three-course gourmet dinner complete with table service.
These class identities were distributed in the form of a color sticker upon students’ arrival, at which time participants were also sent through a series of bureaucratic tasks, such as obtaining housing and employment, before they could eat. How they were treated the remainder of the evening depended entirely on their social class, which was displayed on their name tag.
Three formerly homeless people, who had each been assigned a different class level and who were anonymously mixed in among the other guests, wasted no time in sharing their stories once they were announced. They discussed how contrary to stereotypical causes like addiction or laziness, most homelessness is the result of crisis situations. One medical emergency or lost bill can mean the difference between security and poverty.
“When confronting the issues of homelessness, it is important to see real people and to put them in real-life context,” said Anthony Wehrer (Class of 2011), who was classified as middle class during the event. “Hearing statistics and nameless figures do not have the same emotional weight as a real, breathing, living human being standing in front of you, in need of your help or recounting what brought them to a situation in which they are/were treated as though they were given subhuman status.”
The discussion of homelessness also included a 60 Minutes documentary about homeless children that was filmed in nearby Seminole County. The keynote speaker for the evening Beth Davalos—who was featured in the documentary and is the Families in Transition liaison for Seminole County—spoke to the assembled diners.
“This is just a small window of what’s happening throughout the nation,” Davalos said. “They think it’s their fault, that’s how children are. They are affected in every area of their life. School districts are now one of the largest providers for homeless students.”
With up to 25 percent of children now living in poverty, the homeless rate in the U.S. is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression in the 1930s. For some families the choice comes down to living in a van together or splitting up and living in shelters. For others, it’s deciding between food and electricity.
“Even though I work with the homeless, I’ve never seen anything where you’re nearing ten to fifteen [newly homeless] kids a day. They don’t even have memories to look back on,” said Tasha Robinson-Banks, director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida.
Homelessness, however, is only one of the many issues facing the lower class. To address the others including the plight of migrant workers to the critical need for identification, a series of other organizations, such as the Farmworkers Association of Florida and IDignity, were present to offer additional information and provide opportunities to get involved.
“A lot of people, especially college students, feel like they’re only one person and they can’t help. [One of the speakers] is no longer homeless because of one person,” said Jessie Figueroa, the coordinator of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau. “I don’t think you realize how much of a difference it makes.”
To learn more about these issues and the ways you can get involved, visit the Office of Community Engagement.
By Jennifer Ritter (Class of 2013)
Office of Public Relations & Community Affairs
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.