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Humanizing Homelessness

USC students host a national conference exploring human rights, homelessness and hunger. The lessons learned inspire some to take action during this week’s National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

By Pamela J. Johnson
November 1, 2006

Humanizing Homelessness

 

Rufus Hannah’s once-feral hair has been cut and neatly combed. Clean-shaven, he wears a crisp T-shirt. His rotted teeth have been capped and he flashes a white smile.

Employed and sober, he no longer stumbles around the streets of San Diego County. But his hands are a daily reminder of his troubled past. When he presses both fists together, a bold tattoo spells out: B-U-M-F-I-G-H-T.

“I regret I had anything to do with those videos,” Hannah, 51, told a crowd of hundreds recently during the 19th annual conference of the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, held at USC. “I want to do something to stop this.”

USC College students Marissa Goodhill and Donesh Olyaie led the effort in bringing to campus the three-day conference, which drew about 600 participants. Goodhill and Olyaie also were among the students who organized events on campus for National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, Nov. 13 to 17.

At the conference, Hannah was one of three speakers during a session meant to humanize homelessness. He said he wants to stop a disturbing trend in which teenagers around the world have viciously attacked the homeless. Police said a series of independent videos called “Bumfights” inspired the sometimes-deadly attacks.

The videos show homeless people fighting, being pushed down stairs in shopping carts and jumping off buildings into Dumpsters. Hannah, alcoholic and homeless for about a dozen years, became an unwitting star in the controversial videos. He was given beer to perform what the videographers called stunts.

At USC, Hannah told the student-filled auditorium that he is working with the National Coalition for the Homeless toward legislation that would make violence against the homeless a hate crime.

“I was totally taken advantage of,” the Army veteran said. “I’m trying to get a law passed. I’m fighting back that way.”

David Harris told students he was an unlikely homeless person. Reared in a suburban neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Harris was an excellent student who earned a score of 1,440 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test.

“My hope and dream was to make a living as a writer,” said Harris, an articulate and soft-spoken 42-year-old. “To achieve that goal, my plan was to go to college and get a degree in journalism.”

But after Harris became a parent at 17, his life changed. He wed and worked in restaurants, mailrooms and telemarketing agencies to pay the bills. Then he got sick. Lacking health insurance, he couldn’t afford to see a doctor and grew sicker, until eventually he couldn’t walk or speak.

In a hospital emergency ward, he learned he had congestive heart failure and suffered a stroke. He soon found himself ill and living on the streets. Deeply depressed, he self-medicated with liquor.

“My depression sent me to the Taft Bridge in D.C.,” Harris recounted. “I sat on the railing of that bridge. I looked down and thought, ‘If I just jump, I will no longer have to worry about being homeless, about being cold and about being hungry.’ ”

Perched on the bridge for hours, he watched the sunrise over Rock Creek Park.

“I remember sitting there in the cold and thinking, ‘The sun came up and I’m still sitting here,’ ” he said. “ ‘I can’t do this.’ ”

That morning, he met a volunteer named Rebecca at a soup kitchen.

“She sat down and listened to me for a couple of hours,” Harris said. “I told her about the bridge, and she drove me to the hospital and sat with me until the doctor was ready.”

The doctor did nothing for him, he said.

“But what Rebecca did changed my life,” he said. “It taught me that someone cared. That meant I wasn’t alone in the world. And that gave me hope.”

He’s rebuilding his life with the help of D.C.-based nonprofit groups. He’s also a published poet.

Arlene Melendez was an attractive 40-year-old mother of four who wore a blue-grey sleeveless suit and her hair in a conservative bun. She ended up on the streets of Los Angeles County after drug abuse and serious problems in her marriage.

She slept inside her van parked at a car wash until the vehicle was towed. Then she slept outside at the car wash.

“I started running rampant with methamphetamines,” she told the crowd. “I was snorting more and my body was hurting. I was fistfighting men. My body was going into convulsions, and I thought I was going to die. By the grace of God, I’m here today.”

She sought help so she could be reunited with her children, she said. Clean and sober, she’s staying at a hotel and working on obtaining permanent housing.

“I’ve come a long, long way,” she said. “People think just because we’re homeless, we’re junk. And we’re not. We have hearts and we have families and we have lives. I just lost my path. But I’m back.”

Melendez implored the students not to judge homeless people harshly. A simple smile or acknowledgement can go a long way, she said.

“Words are like daggers,” she said. “Just be careful with your words.”

After the event, Goodhill said the speakers were enlightening.

“They put a face on homelessness,” said Goodhill, 19, a sophomore majoring in American studies. “They made the issue human.”

What began as involvement with USC College’s Joint Educational Project for Goodhill and Donesh has evolved into an effort to launch a chapter of California Student Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG) on campus.

Donesh said he often encounters homeless people on the outskirts of campus. Ignoring them is not the answer, he said.

“When you come across a homeless person, it’s easy to walk away,” said Donesh, 21, a senior majoring in political science and theater. “But that person will still be standing there and will still be hungry.”


For information about joining the new CalPIRG chapter or homelessness awareness week events, email Goodhill at mgoodhil@usc.edu.