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Panel Urges Homeless Help

Experts discuss the causes of homelessness and the possibilities for fighting it

By Anna M. Friedman and Shifra B. Mincer, Crimson Staff Writerss

Students should lobby for increased affordable housing, accessible legal aid, adequate income, and universal healthcare to fight homelessness, a panel of experts said last night.

Cambridge Student Partnerships, part of a student-run nonprofit that teaches low-income individuals how to be independent and obtain governmental assistance, sponsored the panel. About 50 students gathered on the plush leather couches of the Lowell Junior Common Room to hear the five speakers.

Panelists began by discussing the causes of homelessness. Macy DeLong, who said she was once homeless herself, focused on how mental health issues can lead individuals to lose shelter and even reject offers of assistance.

Now the founder and executive director of an organization that provides counseling and employment for the homeless, DeLong described homelessness as a loss of control.

“What being homeless is all about is being controlled by someone else,” said DeLong, who is also a former research associate at Harvard. She said another reason homeless people sometimes refuse shelter and help from case managers is that they do not want others to direct their daily existence.

A clinical instructor in housing law at Harvard Law School, Maureen E. McDonagh, expressed exasperation over funding cuts for critical social service programs that sustain those on the verge of homelessness.

“When I started my job 10 years ago, I thought programs that helped the homeless had been cut to the bone. I just hadn’t realized they could possibly be cut anymore,” she said.

McDonagh, who has represented low-income individuals seeking governmental assistance in court, lamented the termination of a welfare program that paid three months’ rent for those with temporary financial hardship. The program allowed people to retain their housing during brief periods of economic hardship rather than entering a cycle of homelessness, she said.

McDonagh called the federal government’s current Section 8 Voucher program, which subsidizes rent for low-income citizens, “barely recognizable anymore.”

Michael A. Sullivan, a city councillor and former mayor of Cambridge who also participated in the panel, emphasized the importance of educating the public about homelessness to deflate the stereotype that the homeless are responsible for their situation.

Because of this stigma, DeLong said that to less experienced shelter volunteers, a homeless person is “basically a drunk schizophrenic on crack.”

Dr. David Hirsh, medical director of Cambridge Healthcare for the Homeless, said that a large part of addressing homelessness also involves recognizing that many of those who become homeless have been domestically or sexually abused.

As a result, the homeless often feel a “total lack of trust in society,” said panelist Gabriel Paci, president of Bread & Jams, a nonprofit providing Sunday meals and training for the homeless.

But, he added, volunteering to assist the homeless is the best way to spread understanding of their situation.

“You get to understand that these are real people,” he said.

—Staff writer Anna M. Friedman can be reached at amfriedm@fas.harvard.edu. —Staff writer Shifra B. Mincer can be reached at smincer@fas.harvard.edu.

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