Homelessness is a complex problem with no one easy solution. In Michigan, the needs are enormous. People experiencing homelessness see our state as more like a Third World country than like one of the richest areas in the world.
As someone who used to have a middle-class lifestyle but who has struggled financially for the last three years, I deeply understand how huge the gap remains between those who are housed and those who live “out here.”
Therefore, any support provided to people experiencing homelessness should also address society’s stigma and fear of people experiencing it.
I feel this stigma first-hand when I sell my Groundcover newspaper. Invariably, a child will turn around and look at me while a suspicious parent prevents them from stopping. Each time this happens, young people’s curiosity and empathy for others is potentially diminished.
No child should grow up believing that passing another human being who is suffering on the streets is part of the normal landscape. Our youth should be given the opportunity to develop strategies and solutions to the problem, rather than becoming desensitized to it like most adults.
Schools often take on the same fearful, phobic approach to homelessness as does the general public. Even the directors of the agencies and groups charged with ending homelessness tend to spin their wheels, make fruitless promises and shut out the voice of those who they are intended to help.
My Next Idea is a new project that can connect young people directly to serving the homeless population of our state.
People experiencing homelessness in Michigan need both direct services and a decrease in the harmful and dehumanizing stigma that homelessness can bring.
So what’s the Next Idea?
One of the ways in which I want to link students and homeless individuals is through my service project: the “CANN VANN.” I’ve even built a website for it myself, available here.
CANN is an acronym that stands for “Conquering Another Neighbor’s Need.” My ultimate hope is that my project helps people living in “Third World” Michigan and “First World” Michigan begin to treat one another as neighbors.
The idea comes from the fact that many homeless individuals collect cans and bottles in order to make ends meet or for survival. This is the livelihood of so many people living out on the street. The process of canning allows people to earn enough money to get food or a place to sleep.
However, it can be difficult to transport those found objects to bottle deposit stations at Kroger or Meijer. Dragging trash bags full of old sticky recycling on public transit can be messy, physically demanding, and a nuisance to others. Sometimes people are kicked off of city buses because they are attempting to transport leaking or fly-attracting bags of cans. It is understandable that bus drivers don’t want their passengers exposed to mess. But what about when people don’t have any other ways to get around?
That’s where the CANN VANN comes in. Providing volunteer-run transportation between city centers and can and bottle redemption centers will allow “canners” to continue to support themselves.
This concept is also designed to assist anyone who cannot utilize the transit service. These included people living off the bus lines, parents with strollers, or persons carrying large, bulky items.
My hope is that young people can serve as support teams for this transportation initiative. From middle school through college, this is the type of project that will allow students to give valuable input and organize to bring it to life. Not only will it solve an immediate problem, but through their work it will help provide an opportunity to reinforce the lessons about poverty and social change. It will then grow into a serviceable business with a fleet of vehicles designed to meet the needs of those not currently served by public transportation.
In exchange for providing this critical service, people experiencing homelessness or severe economic hardship can become powerful teachers.
Students who are having sustained, long-term, and genuine interactions, rather than just dropping in for a few hours of volunteer work, are going to come away with a nuanced and thoughtful understanding of the social issue of homelessness. Not only will this type of equivalent exchange decrease their fear and anxiety around people living on the street, but it could have long-term policy implications as well.
Because young people’s minds are still developing, youth is a critical intervention time; students can learn new ways of seeing others faster and more deeply than adults. As students do hands-on work with people experiencing homelessness, they can come to understand, for example, the links between short-term and long-term interventions to tackle these types of issues.
Therefore, I see the CANN VANN as just the beginning of a larger initiative to link young people and people experiencing homelessness or economic hardship with their communities. There are so many other practical issues, from providing simple storage spaces for people to distributing non-perishable food that isn’t too weighted.
I see the myriad of needs as a perfect match for the passion and energy of youth. Hopefully, the young people who get involved with the CANN VANN will be the ones who grow up and make social innovations, the kind that can truly address the systemic problems which keep people in our First World country living Third World lives.
Lit Kurtz is a seller for Groundcover News and the creator of the CANN VANN Project.