Homelessness Awareness Week encourages activism

Homelessness Awareness Week is an annual event by the USC Homelessness Action Committee, which features events around campus to provide volunteer opportunities and destigmatize the issue. Daily Trojan file photo.

For many USC students, the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles is not something that comes to mind in everyday life. The USC Homelessness Action Committee aimed to change that by hosting USC’s annual Homelessness Awareness Week, which ran from Monday to Wednesday.

The event featured four events to educate students about the complex social problem of homelessness and to provide volunteer opportunities for interested students.

The committee was first founded last year to raise student awareness about Los Angeles’ Measure H, a tax bill for the largest homelessness funding program in the United States, but expanded its purpose after Measure H’s passage in spring 2017, according to the committee’s president, Cassie Woods, a graduate student studying public administration.

The committee is also associated with the USC Initiative to End Homelessness, a program started after Provost Michael Quick classified homelessness as a “wicked problem” that the University had the responsibility to tackle.

Held on Monday at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, the first event of the week was a documentary screening and discussion that focused on stigmas associated with homelessness and how to address them.

The documentary, The Invisibles, was made by Dworak-Peck clinical professor of field education Rafael Angulo, and told the stories of four individuals who had experienced homelessness and the hardships they faced.

Following the screening, attendees participated in a discussion that featured youth who had experienced homelessness, from the organization Safe Place for Youth, which provides drop-in services, health services, education programs and more for youth experiencing homelessness in the Los Angeles area.

“I think it definitely presented well the personal stories of those people and how it is possible to have their lives transformed, once they get housing,” said Forrest Scharmer, a senior majoring in industrial and systems engineering, who attended multiple events during Homelessness Awareness Week.

That event was followed the next day by a talk given by Jim Burklo, associate dean of religious life, at the University Religious Center. Burklo spoke about fighting homelessness at a political level, focusing on the issue of what he referred to as Not In My Backyard activists, who, although supportive of helping homeless individuals, don’t want shelters built in their neighborhoods. The talk also featured Brenda Wiewel, director of the USC Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness.

“Burklo and [Wiewel] gave very good practical advice for how we can get involved in the political process to help these initiatives like lower-income housing, safe parking, how to make them move forward,” Scharmer said. “I’m definitely going to go to more city council meetings — I’ve heard it before, but they just reinforced it here that it’s really important to go.”

The events of the week culminated on Wednesday, when the committee hosted a volunteer fair in Alumni Park during the day, and a guest panel discussion on Measure H in the evening.

The volunteer fair featured over 15 nonprofits in the Los Angeles area, giving students the opportunity to get involved in the fight against homelessness with organizations that best suited them.

The panel discussion featured three experts working directly to tackle homelessness: Elizabeth Heger, director of family programs at People Assisting The Homeless; Briana Mandel, director of program development and training at Imagine LA; and Kenon Joseph, a regional coordinator for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

They spoke about the impact Measure H has had since its passage in spring this year, analyzing its actual effect on the fight to end homelessness in Los Angeles.

With those four events, Woods hopes students can learn about homelessness while also prompting them to take action against it.

“I also want to provide them with concrete actionable steps, so if they want to do something, I want to open the doorway for them to find that route,” Woods said.