“As of January 2019, Massachusetts had an estimated 18,471 experiencing homelessness on any given day, as reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Of that total, 3,766 were family households, 917 were veterans, 480 were unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24), and 2,370 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness.
Public school data reported to the U.S. Department of Education during the 2017-2018 school year shows that an estimated 23,601 public school students experienced homelessness over the course of the year. Of that total, 192 students were unsheltered, 6,787 were in shelters, 1,524 were in hotels/motels, and 15,098 were doubled up.”
I think about the way we tend to do social justice advocacy. Quite naturally, we tend to pay attention to issues, hardships, inequities, and injustices that affect us and folks like us, where “like us” tends to mean look like us, share experiences with us, come from where we come from It seems so logical, imperative even to ask, “Who’s going to look out for us if we don’t look out for ourselves?”
I am fortunate to not be in the 18,471. My children were never among public school students experiencing homelessness. Homelessness is not MY problem. Homelessness is not a problem that affects anyone in my family. Homelessness is not a problem that affects anyone in my close social networks. I’m guessing it’s accurate to assume that that’s true for most members of the BDS community.
When I arrived at Pine Street Inn this past Saturday to drop off the thousands of items you contributed as part of the MLK Jr. Pine Street Inn Outreach Kits service project, I was greeted by Matt, our partner there, and Lena, another PSI volunteer. They were astounded by the amount that you contributed. They were deeply grateful for your efforts to help them in their efforts to combat homelessness.
Why do they work and volunteer at Pine Street, I wondered. Do they have personal connections to this challenge? What motivates them to do this work? I observed how reflexively my mind sought reasons that had to do with the me-and-mine logic of social justice work.
As early as 1675, one historian reports, sixty-two refugees from a conflict in Rhode Island arrived in Boston. They were not well-received. They were blamed for their plight. Their struggle was seen as THEIR problem, not the problem of those fortunate enough to have homes. Regarded as “troubled and troublesome individuals,” they were “warned away and removed.” Over time that cruel and inaccurate construction of why people are homeless has changed but the truth is it hasn’t completely gone away.
The history of homelessness, like the history of xenophobia, like the history of racism, like the history of gender inequity, like the history of heterosexism, like the history of classism, and ableism, and ageism, and lookism, and worldview intolerance is characterized by the social justice myopia that afflicts us all. It’s hard to see that social bias is social bias no matter if it manifests in a way that bears down on one directly or in a way that spares one but bears down on someone else. A blinkered approach to social justice that begins and ends with folks who look like me will never lead to an end of injustice. It’s crucial to see that there but for a change in circumstance go I.
The most important results of our MLK Jr. service project for Pine Street will be the warm hands, feet, and heads, and the skin that can resist the damaging effects of prolonged exposure to harsh winter weather, of the peoplepeople just like us, despite any ways in which they don’t “look” like uswho are better equipped than they would otherwise be to move through and beyond the circumstance of homelessness.
The other value we hope is derived from this project is the development or strengthening of an empathic-coalitional view of social justice, a view that understands our school values, Excellence, Responsibility, Respect, Honesty, Caring, and Joy, as mandates to resist social justice myopia.
On behalf of Matt and Lena, and everyone at Pine Street Inn, and with gratitude to the members of the MLK Jr. Observance Committee (Koreen McQuilton, Betty Chu Pryor, Dean Spencer, and Heather Woodcock), Anderson Santos, Lino Medeiros, and Michael Feretra of Buildings & Grounds, Pati Fernandez, and the BDS leadership team, thank you for your service.