When Robert Turk moved to Chicago in August 2019 to study at Adler University, he was struck by how many people were living on the streets. Turk was treating a homeless man to a meal at McDonald’s, when the man told him, ‘I wasn’t expecting you to sit down and talk to me.”
“After that I realized how the fast pace of Chicago had led to treating these people as unimportant and ignoring them,” Turk said. “They deserve human connection and to be treated with dignity.”
Fellow student Kevin Hamor experienced homelessness himself for about two years when he was a teenager. “Personally, I would never wish to go back in time and change that, because that experience helped shape who I am today,” Hamor said. “But, in a perfect world, no one would be homeless. Sadly, this city, state, country, world has a lot of work and tough decisions to accurately address the underlying reasons for homelessness for this to be possible.”
These experiences motivated the Chicago Campus students and their peers to form the Homelessness Student Advocacy Organization at the start of the 2019-2020 school year. Members of the association’s leadership team include: Robert Turk (President), Yolanda Casillas (Vice President), Kevin Hamor (Secretary), and Izmane Jean-Louis (Social Chair).
Creating a Student Association to Address Homelessness
The Homelessness Student Advocacy Organization aims to raise awareness of homelessness and its many forms, Turk said. “Our goal is to help dispel the stigma placed on homeless people and to try to make a difference through direct service to this population.”
The student association gives them an opportunity to do this. “Student associations and organizations are important on every campus,” Hamor said. “These organizations create a space to build a platform to draw awareness and foster exploration into passionate projects that can often spark a deeper understanding.”
The Homelessness Student Advocacy Organization leaders plan to host events, virtually or in-person when able, and to continue to build partnerships and collaborations to show the many different experiences of homelessness.
“Many people are unsure what homelessness actually looks like or how it can happen,” Hamor said. “Homelessness is a process, not something that happens overnight. There are often many contributing factors that one person simply cannot control or predict on their own.”
“Homelessness affects us all,” Casillas added. It also affects more people that we may think. “The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines homelessness as an individual who lacks housing, including an individual whose primary residence during the night is a supervised public or private facility that provides temporary living accommodations, an individual who is in a resident living accommodations, and an individual who is in a resident transitional housing.”
“I have lived experience being homeless. However, my experience alone cannot be the definition of homelessness,” Hamor said, adding that there are many unique stories that deserve to be heard and felt. “If we begin to ignore all experiences associated with homelessness, we then give permission for it to keep happening.”
Getting a Glimpse of Street Homelessness for a Night
Hamor and Jean-Louis participated in the World’s Big Sleep Out in Chicago, a global event that calls to end street homelessness around the world. For a small glimpse of street homelessness, they spent the night outside in Lincoln Park on December 7, 2019—one of the winter’s coldest nights.
“The night was unlike anything I expected or experienced,” Hamor said. “The wind was so harsh that it pierced through layers of clothing.”
“It stirred up many different emotions for me, such as frustration, fear, anxiety, sadness, gratefulness, and thankfulness,” Jean-Louis said. “Being a part of the process gave me a different insight as to what not having shelter and being afraid, and not knowing how the night would turn out, looks and feels like.”
Jean-Louis also added that they “had to search and defend an area to call home for the night, which I am guessing those outside have to do on a daily basis.”
Hamor said he took away from the experience how much he still takes for granted. “I was so ready to get back home when the event ended because all I wanted to do was take a shower and crawl into bed,” he said. “There are people who haven’t felt the comfort of warmth like that in years. Their ability to endure and survive speaks to their character and strength.”
The homeless population is something that is ignored in American until “they are in the way,” Jean-Louis said. “I left wanting to do more, in whatever capacity that I can, to better fight homelessness.”
Caring for People Who Are Homeless During the Pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic as many people are being told to stay in-at-home, many others do not have that luxury. The student association has been facilitating conversations and raising awareness on how the situation is affecting the homeless population.
There are unique challenges that people without homes are facing right now, Hamor said. For example, people can’t access public restrooms, and it is also harder for them to access hospitals at this time.
“Since hospitals will treat without insurance, that is where a majority of homeless individuals go for medical care,” Hamor said. “Now that the nation is involved with the pandemic, the medical system is even harder for homeless individuals to access. In addition, many shelters, day shelters, and day programs closed, because they were not deemed essential.”
Hamor encourages people to have “humanity during this time.”
“If it is medically safe to do so, continuing to provide resources to individuals who are homeless is essential,” he said. He also hopes systems can be improved in the future to better support all people. “My hope is that after this is all ‘over,’ we as a nation, can address the severe deficits in our social programs that have failed a large number of people in this country.”
Photo: Kevin Hamor and Izmane Jean-Louis participating in the World’s Big Sleep Out in Chicago’s Lincoln Park on December 7, 2019