By Nikki Thompson
Last spring break, I went on a trip in partnership with the Texas Hunger Initiative and Baylor Missions. The purpose of the trip was simply to spend a week with in Lubbock and learn about the lives of the people who struggle with poverty. Our team engaged in a very different type of mission trip with a focus on building relationships rather than meeting a material need. Engaging in conversation with people who struggle with homelessness opened my eyes to how complex and intersectional poverty is. Poverty is an international problem, but it occurs at a personal level, thus showing the need for relationships. My experiences and conversations with the people of Lubbock opened my eyes to the importance of good volunteers. This relational approach to volunteering and missions also challenged many assumptions I had about homelessness, food-insecurity, and the people I wanted to help. I realized that volunteers, myself included, are often trained using an unhelpful and potentially unethical model as a result of incorrect beliefs about poverty. Throughout the course of this week, it became very clear to me that the ways I had served in the past were not only ineffective but also harmful.
Why Do Our Beliefs About Poverty Matter?
What volunteers and organizations believe about poverty has a direct correlation to how they choose to work for the alleviation of poverty. Logically, this makes sense. If I believe that poverty is material, the way I attempt to alleviate poverty is by giving material goods (i.e. food, clothes, shelter). If I think that poverty is a socio-political issue, I will lobby for policy reform. Therefore, it is vitally important that we understand what poverty is and why individuals struggle with poverty before we attempt to eradicate it. Otherwise, we risk wasting time, effort, and resources. On a personal level, the way we think about poverty colors the way we will interact with people who struggle with poverty. These thoughts can seem harmless but have a large effect on the outcome of the action. The nature of volunteers’ relationships with those they are helping can either ensure success or failure.
Assumptions I Had (And Why They’re Wrong)
I. Poverty is primarily a material issue. It is easy to think that poverty is simply a lack of money when in reality American poverty is a complex and personal issue. In When Helping Hurts, Stephen Corbett and Brian Fikkert conduct experiments in which they ask people who struggle with poverty what it is and then ask middle class people what poverty is. The differences are astonishing. People more removed from poverty, the middle class, tended to describe poverty in material terms. They said that people who struggled with poverty simply lacked material resources. However, individuals who struggle with poverty described their condition on an emotional, psychological and relational level. They often used words such as “shame,” “inferiority,” and “powerlessness.” This is significant because it demonstrates that poverty is much more than material. Poverty affects the whole person, not just their physical being. Because of this, we must create holistic solutions to poverty, considering each person as an individual.
Through talking to people who struggle with homelessness, I discovered that there is not one problem they all share that led to their homelessness. Some of the people I talked to struggled with drug addiction, others with mental illness or physical health issues that hinder them from holding a job. Others have jail time on their record, which severely limits their job and housing choices. Many women who are homeless are victims of domestic violence who were forced to choose between homelessness or abuse. A large number of the homeless community (approximately 40%) identify as being LGBTQ, and many gay youths are kicked out of their homes due to their sexual orientation. Other factors affect homelessness, such as ethnicity. A 2004 survey shows that in the 27 cities studied, 49% of people who were homeless were African American, 35% were Caucasian, and 13% were Hispanic. To put these numbers in context, in 2000 the U.S. population was made up of 75% of white Americans, 12.3% black Americans and 12.5% Hispanic Americans. Another large demographic within the homeless population are veterans. I write all of this to demonstrate that people who are homeless struggle with various things–many fall under multiple from the list above—which keep them homeless or jobless. These people have very specific and very complex situations that bring them to homelessness. This complexity is exactly why we must take a relational approach to homelessness and poverty. We cannot assume that we know what will help people until we actually talk to people; not many of these problems can be solved by simply giving money.
II. People who struggle with poverty are helpless. This is perhaps the most dangerous and harmful thought I had. Not only does this thought process limit our effectiveness as volunteers, it actually feeds into the cycle of poverty by patronizing (and further debilitating) the poor. Like I mentioned before, one of the main ways people describe their poverty is through words reflecting social condition or psychological state rather than their material lack of resources. They say they feel powerless, unwanted and ashamed. If we treat people as if they are our patient, we justify and perpetuate these feelings.
I was a horrible offender of this before, but I didn’t know it. I don’t think I ever consciously thought “these people need my help.” I would think and say things like, “I want to help people who can’t help themselves,” or “I want to be a voice for the voiceless.” These statements take away all agency these people have. While poverty often involves large influences such as social conditions and privileges, this does not render people who are impoverished as helpless victims. Just because someone has suffered because of poverty, oftentimes it means they are working against a social construct or condition much bigger than them. I think there is an important balance between helping people and creating a dependency on the help. We should seek to empower these people by asking them what they need and how we can help and then by acting accordingly.
III. People become homeless because of their choices. During the week I was in Lubbock, my team did a privilege exercise with the people we met in a local homeless outreach center. The exercise consisted of every one of us lining up horizontally and taking a step forward or backward based on our responses to questions related to privilege. The questions covered a multitude of things, from race to socio-economic class to sexuality to gender and the opportunities associated with these things. Each question had a common theme, though, and that was that our experiences were largely unrelated to any choices we made as individuals. They are all circumstances we inherited at birth. For example, a few of the questions were: do one or both of your parents have a college degree? Does your household employ people of color as servants, gardeners, etc.? Have you ever been made fun of or bullied for something beyond your control? It was shocking to see so clearly the privilege that is so pervasive in our society for the middle class, straight white male. There are so many factors which affect our lives that we have no say in. I did not choose to be born a white, middle class female, but because of these things I am able to attend a good university and do not fear that I will struggle with homelessness. However, others were not born with the same luxuries.
A vast majority of the people I talked to over the week did not choose to become homeless, rather it was a circumstance of their life. Heather, one woman I got to know at Carpenter’s church, grew up in a split household with her alcoholic mother. She was molested and raped by her stepfather and became addicted to drugs at a young age. Her drug addiction eventually cost her her children, her job, and her home. After getting clean, Heather found out that she had been living with a mental illness. Another man we met, Sam, was introduced to drugs at age thirteen by his mother, which led to his eventual addiction and involvement in gangs, which subsequently led to jail time. The common factor here is that both Sam and Heather’s poverty can be traced back to factors they had little or no control over.
Positive Habits for Volunteers to Cultivate
I. People-first language. People-first language is probably the hardest but most practical thing I learned in Lubbock. People-first language is a way of speaking that focuses on someone’s personhood instead of their situation. It is very simple. For example, instead of saying “a homeless person,” it is better to say “a person who is homeless” or “a person who struggles with homelessness.” This is very effective in changing both the speaker and the listener’s perception of the individual. The idea behind it is that describing words used often enough become defining words. Our trip leader told us about a study where a professor used regular language to describe a person versus people-first language. The reception was significantly different. The professor asked her students to say the first thing they thought of when she said “homeless person.” The students responded with things such as “drug addiction,” “dirty,” and “lazy.” However, when the professor said “a person without a home,” her students responded with scenarios in which the person lost their job or had a bad relationship with their family and got kicked out. When presented with the normal, dehumanizing language, one is much more likely to believe and ascribe to certain stereotypes. However, when the personhood of a person is the focal point of the phrase, rather than a description of them, we are far more likely to think about them as an individual and consider their situation.
These example make clear the effect language has on the way we see people. When we characterize someone as their situation, we make their situation the most important thing about them and subconsciously apply stereotypes to them. However, when we first acknowledge that this is, first and foremost, a person, we are more aware of them as an individual and tend to think of what could have brought them to this situation. This simple change can alter the way we think about people and communicate respect and regard for the individual. However, regular speaking is a very hard habit to break because it is something we do without thinking. It is a challenge to change the way you speak about people, but the result is well worth it.
II. Relational care. Perhaps the most valuable and applicable thing I learned during my week in Lubbock was the importance of relationships. I don’t often think about what life is like for those who struggle with homelessness, but a main theme in the stories I heard was loneliness. People told me about how, on the streets, you do not usually have friendships or companions. Everyone is fending for themselves so they cannot trust anyone else. I think I had this romantic idea of people banding together to “beat homelessness” that I’ve seen in movies, but this is not the reality. Many of the people I talked to were more than eager to share their stories because it was rare that someone wanted to listen to them. This was something I had to get used to quickly, because coming into the trip I was expecting people to be hesitant to tell me the details of their life. However, the majority of people I talked to unashamedly told me their life story within the first five minutes of meeting them.
One of the men I met, Sam, told a large group of us about his life in great detail. He would interrupt himself, saying “I’m just being honest, I just want to tell you what happened.” His openness about his history with gangs and crimes he committed made me wonder how many people know this about him and how often people take the time to find out about his life. It scares me to think about how easy it is for people to slip through the cracks. A volunteer I talked to told me about a man he used to serve. The man (they never learned his name) stood across the street from the place they served dinner every week, and they eventually started taking dinner out to him. He didn’t say anything other than “thank you,” so they did not find out anything about him until one day when he did not show up. They went out to look for him and he was hospitalized. It turns out, he had gone to college but suffered an anxiety attack and developed schizophrenia following the death of his father. He did not have insurance and was not able to get his medication, so his condition had worsened over the years to this state. Thankfully, the volunteers knew who he was and knew to look for him. It is scary to think about what could have happened if no one had taken the time to notice him.
Heather, one of the women I interviewed, told me how important her relationships with the staff at Carpenter’s Church outreach were to her. She is an active member in the community at Carpenter’s and regularly teaches classes and helps in the kitchen. Though she loves everyone who comes to Carpenter’s, she emphasized that her relationships with staff members played a most crucial role in her recovery and growth. The stability offered Heather in these relationships made it possible for her to get clean and escape an abusive marriage. When we talked, she drew a clear distinction between relationships with staff members to relationships with others who come to Carpenter’s. Heather was a heroin addict, so being around others who struggle with drugs puts her at risk to relapse. Furthermore, she is bipolar and she told me that being around the people’s “drama” was not good for her, either. The stability and consistency of the staff at Carpenter’s allowed her a place to grow and thrive. Relational care is important to restore a feeling of dignity and worth in people who struggle with poverty, to recognize and properly address each individual’s problems and to encourage consistent growth.
III. Creative, personalized solutions and collaboration. A holistic, relational approach to outreach is important in order to effectively help people. For example, If we simply give people food, we risk creating a system in which people become dependent on us for food. Instead, we can use food as a way to attract people and then form relationships with them to actually ask what they need and continue to walk with them as they grow. In Lubbock, my team talked to the Homeless Outreach Team (H.O.T.) of the Lubbock P.D. I think they fulfill the balance between helping and hurting by creating relationships with people and then helping where they can. For instance, the policemen will help people by giving them rides to work or the doctor or helping them move furniture. One of the policemen told us about how he works with panhandlers. He often gets calls about them and has gotten to know a few of them. He knows that panhandling is not a good thing, because it is an easy way for addicts to get money to spend on alcohol or drugs, so he encourages them not to do so. He, instead, helps these people get jobs and helps them get to their job so they can keep it instead of being dependent on handouts.
When we acknowledge that poverty is an issue that affects individualizes specifically, according to their personal context, we become aware that this means there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each individual is different and struggles with different things, so there is no one solution for poverty or hunger or homelessness. These issues are intersectional and complex, which can seem discouraging, but this really just means that we need every type of person to help. You don’t have to be a social worker or a “social justice warrior” to help end poverty. Each person’s skills and talents are needed to create solutions. We must nurture a spirit of collaboration and creativity in the way we approach such large issues because there is not one right answer. As we focus on people and forming relationships, it becomes clear that everyone is needed. On a large scale, organizations should collaborate with their areas of expertise to improve the lives of those around them. Personally, volunteers should utilize their unique skills and interests to creatively solve issues they encounter and discover through relationships with those they desire to help.
Spring Break 2018
Next year, I will be a student leader on this trip through Baylor Missions. We have the same goal of listening to people’s stories and confronting our assumptions about poverty. We will continue to engage the people of Lubbock, Texas and learn about creative, interdisciplinary ways to help alleviate poverty. It is not a conventional “mission trip” in that we will be providing a service. We will be conducting interviews and learning about story-based advocacy and what it means to make room for other’s voices instead of speaking on their behalf. It is an incredible experience through which you will certainly be challenged and I could not recommend it highly enough. The trip application is available online here.
Nikki is a junior majoring in professional writing and rhetoric.