Student Health Outreach (SHO) hosted their annual event Houseless Awareness Night on Wednesday, May 14, for an evening that included students, professionals from Doctors Without Walls, Common Ground, and Health Empowerment And Love (HEAL). Members of the houseless community also attended, some of whom shared harrowing tales of how they came to be houseless or how they overcame their obstacles. There was an emphasis on breaking stereotypes, and how it is fundamental to change the way we see members of the houseless community and stop discrimination.
SHO focuses on outreach to those without means through basic care and medical help, as well as encouraging other businesses and programs to contribute to the cause. According to SHO, a core goal of the organization is to “bridge the gap between medical professionals, local authorities, and social workers by serving as a frequent source of positive social interaction with the homeless.”
Breaking stereotypes was a resounding theme throughout the night, which was addressed with a common-ground icebreaker, a Q&A with a panel of professionals and members of the group, and—most effectively, in my opinion—testimony from members and former members of the houseless community. The emotion in the room was palpable as we listened to recounted hardships, bad luck, unfavorable circumstances, and deaths of loved ones, and marveled at the resilience that shone through in each part.
Rev. Doug Miller of the Interfaith Initiative and Greater Santa Barbara Clergy association has been an integral part of fostering a more progressive mindset regarding the houseless community and how they can be given aid. One of his current projects is developing portable showers to ensure consistent and available hygiene services. Empowerment is a key concept for Miller.
“The greatest movement in life—spiritual or social—is from a master/slave relationship to an equal friendship,” he said. “We’re trying to move in that direction.” Sustainable living, funding for housing and shelters, and eliminating prejudice are all fundamental goals to drive the process. This entails a change in perspective from both a social and legal outlook. The wording used during discussion and in legal bill drafts is crucial in how the decisions are made; generalizing and exaggerating has taken a great toll, thus the focus on language.
Furthermore, as one member of the community reflected, these prejudices come out in subtle ways. Members of the houseless community are targeted by the law, which justifies itself behind phrases like “aggressive panhandling”—something that sounds scary but is not actually seen often. There is also a notion to eliminate discrimination based on housing status, the same way discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is being fought. This actually has revolutionary roots, and dates back to times of landed gentry, when owning land is what allowed someone to have an opinion. But, as another speaker pointed out, a person can go from having a house to not having one very quickly. It is not always due to drug abuse or mental disorders, as most think; oftentimes financial hardship is at the cause of the problem, with more people in danger than the general public would guess. Living paycheck to paycheck does not leave much room in case something goes wrong.
The root of prejudice presents itself in many ways, and SHO works to deal with how it evolves. During the Q&A with the panel, it was pointed out that it is always easier to be indifferent than to care. People feel guilty and may not know what to do or how to react to hardship. This is why sharing stories is key. This aspect of the event is what resonated most, whether it was through the guest speakers or musical performances given. The conclusion SHO perpetuates is that a healthy houseless population is ultimately fundamental to the health of the larger community.