On a given night, approximately 7,000 Minnesotans take refuge in homeless shelters around the state, while roughly 1,000 more homeless citizens are turned away. These numbers have sharply increased in the last two decades, and on Monday night, Carleton students participated in a Hunger Banquet sponsored by MPIRG to address the issues of homelessness and poverty. The banquet provided information about homelessness, encouraged activism, and questioned the peaking numbers of people living without homes within the world’s richest nation.
As students entered the Great Hall Monday evening, they were assigned to a different income classes. Fifteen percent of the attendees were placed in the upper class (defined by a household income above $115,000) and enjoyed a lavish dinner at finely decorated tables. The other students were split among the middle and lower classes. The middle class (household income between $38,000 and $115,000) sat in chairs and had a meal of rice and beans, while the lower class (household income below 38,000) was restricted to rice and ate their dinner on the floor.
“They did a very good job of making you see the difference between the classes,” Sean Noonan ’08, who was placed in the middle-class at the banquet, said. “I think that there could have been more information on it was like to live like that [in poverty]… I was hungry afterwards. You were full, but you didn’t feel satisfied. It would be hard to live like that.”
Following the supper and discussion, Mike Manhard, executive director of Metro-wide Engagement on Shelter & Housing (MESH), gave a speech on the situation of homelessness in Minnesota. As director of MESH, Manhard’s mission is to form partnerships to build metro-wide solutions that will end homelessness and increase affordable housing options. “This is a crucial time in the work that we do…we could really turn the pendulum and get much more attention,” Manhard said.
In addition to collaborating with local efforts to address housing issues, Manhard has done community education about poverty and homelessness. In 2006, he helped produce “Land of 10,000 Homeless 2004-2006,” a documentary about families, youth, and single adults facing homelessness in Hennepin County.
Manhard posed the question at the beginning of his speech, “In an affluent state, in the richest country in the world, why are 500 people sleeping outside each night in Minneapolis alone?”
According to Manhard, the United States has seen changing trends in homelessness during the last 20 to 30 years. While the image of the “vagabond” has consistently had a presence throughout history, recent decades have seen a spike in homelessness, as well as an increased number of children and families that are enduring without homes.
Manhard attributes part of the problem to income inadequacy. Job openings in Minnesota typically pay $11 per hour, while two parents need at least $12.25 per hour to affordably live. The predicament heightens when single parents try to support their children, as is the case for the 55 percent of homeless women in Minnesota that have at least one child with them.
Manhard also blames the federal government for an abandonment of the housing project, with a budget drop of 60 percent and additional cuts in social services and healthcare. “We need to end the myth that the government can’t do it all,” Manhard says. “The government hasn’t been doing it all.” He referenced the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and Barack Obama’s claim that the federal government abandoned the people of New Orleans long before the hurricane hit.
Additionally, Manhard questioned the government’s $500 billion per year funding for the war in Iraq, in light of the recent budget cuts for low-income families. “What if we started a debate about housing as a human right?” he said. “That’s a national security issue to those [low-income] families. Taxes are not more offensive than the fact that people died last year because they didn’t have a place to live.”
Manhard proposes several solutions to ending homelessness. Primarily, he emphasizes the need to change the debate about homelessness and frame the right to adequate housing within the human rights discourse. “Let’s not manage homelessness, let’s end it,” Manhard said. He would like to see $4 million to $22 million per county in state funding for low-income citizens, with the mindset that non-profit organizations, church groups, and ordinary activists can instigate change for homeless people, but not without the help of federal and state funding.
Additionally, Manhard called for active involvement in the fight against homelessness. “We need more people in our state to simply be bothered about what’s happening, and we need to be bothered enough to do something about it. Society is shaped by those who stand up.” Manhard stressed the importance of asking questions, community education about homelessness, and putting pressure on elected officials.
Manhard further stressed the necessity to get engaged with victims of homelessness. “If you don’t know anyone who’s homeless…didn’t grow up in homelessness and poverty…go figure that you’re not involved,” he said.
Manhard strove to dissolve some of the stereotypes surrounding homeless people, such as common accusations that they are lazy, chemical addicts, or make bad choices. “My classmates in college fit those stereotypes, but those classmates that I had are making six figures now, because of the support and finance they had around them,” Manhard said.
Northfield Representative David Bly, who spoke briefly at the banquet as well, described the tenuous lives of those in poverty, and encouraged Carleton students to become involved in the issue of homelessness. He referenced the widening income gap and the hardships faced by homeless people on a daily basis, such as malnutrition and the difficulty of simply finding a shower. “Unless we help, they [low-income citizens] really can’t find that ladder to get out of poverty,” Bly said. “The thing that really scares me is that I see our state going in the opposite direction…I hope we’re talking to some future leaders here that are willing to make some change.”
After the Hunger Banquet, Noonan described the event as beneficial in terms of awareness, stating that Manhard brought up factors of poverty and homelessness that are not typically considered. He added,however, that “It’s going to take individual motivation to get active about it.”
To become involved in the fight against homelessness, community members can volunteer at the Northfield Community Action Center or at one of many homeless shelters in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Citizens are also able to contact politicians and rally their support for legislation that addresses the issue of homelessness. Two important bills currently at the state level are the Housing Solutions Act and the Homeless and Runaway Youth Act. Community members of the metro-area can also show solidarity with victims of homelessness by attending a memorial service on December 20, which will honor the people that lost their lives due to displacement in Minneapolis within the last year. For more information on how to get involved, visit www.headinghomehennepin.org.