By MELISSA REESE
CAMPUS—The Presidential Scholars Program and the Institute for Public Affairs and Citizen Engagement (PACE) hosted a panel and workshop to inform the community about the issue of homelessness in the Salisbury community Thursday night.
Ron Nagano, co-founder of From Roots to Wings claimed that the Board of Education said more than 1,200 students in Wicomico County are considered homeless. Nagano said homelessness is not as visible in this community as it is in New York City, where he is from, where people can frequently see homeless people out on the streets or on the sidewalks, but homeless people in this area face all the same issues of food accessibility, mental health and addiction.
Martin Hutchison, pastor of Community of Joy Church, is helping the homeless in Salisbury by providing up to 22 cots in vacant churches to house homeless people during the cold winter months to prevent them from freezing out on the streets. He also founded Camden Community Garden on Camden Avenue, which is now in its fourth season.
Pastor Hutchison partnered with Lowe’s to provide 600 meals to people in need.
Hutchison said many other churches are reluctant to house the homeless in their churches during the winter months, but it is the Community of Joy Church’s mission to house the homeless year-round.
“No one wants to have the homeless in their churches during Christmas, except Community of Joy,” Hutchison said. “Not everybody can pull themselves up by the bootstraps because some people don’t even have bootstraps, to begin with.”
Hutchison said many people are afraid to self-identify as homeless because of the stigma surrounding homelessness, but he is proud of them for braving the tough conditions of their lives.
“The thing you should know about the homeless community is they are survivors,” Hutchison said.
Theo Williams, housing and homelessness manager of Salisbury, said his work involves addressing the complex problems of mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice backgrounds when people are facing extreme uncertainty. He said his job requires a lot of flexibility and understanding.
Williams said he had a dark sense of humor, even before he started this job, but his sense of humor happens to fit well with the type of work he does.
“It’s a lot of understanding, it’s a lot of patience, it’s a lot of laughter,” Williams said.
Williams has lived in Ghana for six months and Scotland for five months. He believes the problems the U.S. is facing are unique because it is the richest country in the world, but also has a high homeless population.
“The level of homelessness that we have in this country, as the richest country in the world, is absurd,” Williams said. “The systematic problems that we have created as a society that lead to homelessness, they’re not gonna go away by ignoring them.”
Williams said homelessness is not as visible in the Salisbury community as it is in larger cities even though the per capita rate is still high.
“Homelessness in rural communities is much more sheltered,” Williams said. “Even though someone may go to Baltimore or D.C. and see a homeless person frequently think that, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine the magnitude of the problem,’ we have a similar magnitude here. It’s just not as much in the open.’”
Jennifer Small, SU alumna and branch managing director of the Maryland Food Bank, helps feed eight counties in the Eastern Shore area through food banks and soup kitchens. She said food is the most essential resource that the homeless need to survive.
“Food is a basic necessity,” Small said. “Food is also one of the first things they cut.”
Small said she was close to tears many times during the discussion because she said this issue is very personal and near and dear to her.
Small said what brought her to her service was that she had to use an emergency food program herself in her thirties after getting a divorce and having a one-year-old son to feed. She said she took any job she could, which led her to the Maryland Food Bank.
“Every day is extremely fulfilling because, at the end of the day, you can lay your head down knowing that you’ve done the greater good, and it’s really making an impact to those hungry tummies that can’t do it for themselves,” Small said.
Small said anyone can face monetary challenges in life and have difficulties affording food along with all of their other expenses. As a single mother, she struggled herself to make ends meet, and now she feels a moral and ethical obligation to help others in similar positions.
“Not everybody understands that it is individuals, like you or I, who are trying to make the right decisions or trying to go through life,” Small said. “And they’re having to decide between paying for their cars or their prescriptions or their tuition expenses and books and things like that, so food tends to go on the back burner, and that’s when they’re facing things like nutritional and health issues and homelessness.”
Featured image by Megan Campbell.