Left to right Alex, Nadine and Brian, and Rochella from the National Coalition for the Homeless on our way to DuPont Circle for an outreach run

Oftentimes, people do not take the time to listen and understand what a homeless person may truly need. And in the process the voices of homeless individuals and their needs are unheard. Our SPIA student research under the guidance of Dr. Thomas Sanchez, program chair for Urban Affairs and Planning has helped learn many things about planning communities around the needs of homeless individuals. This background research and literature review coupled with interviews with experts has led to the creation of a module based on their research to be offered in the Fall of 2017.

Three SPIA masters students: Alex Schiavoni (Master in Landscape Architecture), Bryan Steckler (Master in Urban and Regional Planning) and Nadine Wagenhoffer (Dual degree in Master in Landscape Architecture and Master in Urban and Regional Planning) along with Dr. Sanchez focused on a particular location near the Watergate, Virginia Ave, I Street, and 66 that was seen a great potential for the case study. Dr. Sanchez had been in contact with some of the homeless living in tents as well as a property owner adjacent to the camp location, which made this the area of interest. Another reason this stood out as a prominent area of interest was because of the nearby stakeholders. It was a busy area and there was a conflict of who had the right to use the area and who didn’t.

Our student research has found out that simply acknowledging homeless individuals as being other human beings goes a long way. A simple smile, greeting them with a “hello”, or “how are you doing” and waiting to hear back from them means the world to them. Research has also found that asking someone their name and saying someone’s name back to them enables them in a positive manner and increases their self-esteem as they feel they are people who no longer get acknowledged as a person.

It’s ok to give money to the homeless or buy lunch or give them socks or other needed items if you feel you want to. However, in all of these, it’s the “way it is done” that matters most. Simply dropping cash into the bowl does not make this deed meaningful. However, if this action is coupled with kindness and love, it definitely goes a long way. Students have found out that taking time to listen to these people and trying to connect genuinely with them is what makes you a winner. It is important to remember that homeless individuals are still people, and they should be treated with respect. As a general rule of thumb, the best way to treat someone is to imagine you in that position!

The reasons people are homeless could be many: expensive housing, mental health issues, lack of wage, etc. Assumptions that addiction or unemployment sum up the reasons someone is homeless are a way to turn away from looking at what the broader context. It might seem paradoxical but looking at the bigger picture does more of service to understanding homeless individuals. What we often forget is that the homeless often have no restroom they are welcome to use, and it is illegal to put a tent or tarp over their head. If the general public and some political decision makers knew the condition of some shelters and the day-to-day troubles that one faces, policies and actions would be a lot different.

“It is essential for us to have empathy for someone in a position less than our own. Many of us never had to worry when we were couple dollars short for rent or even when we needed to borrow money for food, as we had families who could support us.

It is a privilege to not worry about these things we take for granted. I know I have been sustained by my family and been on credit cards for a little bit longer. I am in a different place only because of that, and I have the security. But when I think of those who don’t, I can’t help but feel on the edge.”
– Alex Schiavoni

Also many homeless individuals choose not to live in shelters. One may think it’s a choice they make, but that’s not the case necessarily. Government sponsored shelters often have poor conditions: Bedbugs, lice, rat feces and to name a few. In addition, within these shelters also live drug dealers, sex offenders, abusers, and people with mental illnesses, which make it harder on normal people to survive. There is restriction on the personal items that can be brought in, and also restrictions on family members who can come in. Also, one has to sleep with their shoes under their bedposts to make sure they are still there in the morning.

Here are some of the things our students did as part of their research:

1. Invited speakers from the National Coalition for the homeless in DC
Students arranged for two guest speakers: one was a minister in DC; and the other, the coordinator for homelessness in Alexandria. Both were formally homeless. One of the speakers mentioned in his talk about never going to a shelter for quite some time and choosing to sleep on cold cement in parking garages or in the woods because of this, though he later found a shelter that was clean and hygienic and wished he had known sooner.

2. Outreach run and collecting donations
Students arranged an outreach on Easter Sunday (also VT’s 10th anniversary of the school shootings) at DuPont Circle. In addition, they wanted to create a direct impact in the lives of homeless individuals, and set up donation boxes for non-cash items. They filled at least 5 boxes through Virginia Tech (VT), plus a whole bunch of other things they received and saved throughout the past two semesters. Students tried for maximum outreach and placed at least one box in each VT building in Alexandria (601, 1001, and 1021). Both students and professors participated in the donations, and it gave our SPIA community a good feeling about helping those in need. The most fulfilling part of the outreach was distributing the donations directly to those in need. Students could see the warm reactions and appreciation from those in need. Another round of donations was made to the Carpenter Shelter and a church in Alexandria. Nadine also tried to engage the VT Alexandria community by sending emails to students in both SPIA and The WAAC (which included students in architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, natural resources undergrads, graduate, and PHD students) welcoming their participation in the donations, and invitations to join them for on-campus expert interviews, and outreach runs, as well as participate in donations of items. This was a special endeavor which linked and created synergy between both the VT SPIA and WAAC programs, which otherwise remain quite separate from each other.

DuPont Circle – A homeless woman hugs Rochella for some the women’s clothes we brought over from the VT donations. The woman exclaimed, “I finally have something I can wear for an interview!”

Homelessness can happen to anyone. Both Nadine and Alex have been witnesses to several people’s experience and they fully believe that “talking to homeless individuals and lending a ear” is a big part of community service, and this is what helps bridge gaps on policy initiatives. “Some homeless individuals work, some don’t, some are disabled, some aren’t, some may face debilitating addiction, some may not. The common thread is that they are stranded in the margins of society and people ignore everything about them from their appearance to the inequalities in health, housing, food, and employment that contribute to their situation,” said Alex.

Students are not approving of the response of cities to clear out homeless encampments and feel that it does not solve the underlying problem. The homeless are still homeless and in addition, they are ostracized from using public space. Students look forward to the new module as they feel they have the ability to make a greater impact within both the VT and local community. They are willing to contribute their time and efforts to this class to convey such an important lesson through engagement and advocacy.