Annual poverty panel focuses on homelessness

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The Greater City coalition offered insight into issue of housing, mental illness, and criminalization. JAE CHUNG / THE FLAT HAT

Wednesday, Nov. 14, Greater City hosted “People not Problems: Poverty in Williamsburg” as part of its annual panel focused on building awareness around poverty and homelessness.

Greater City is a coalition of students from a variety of different campus ministries that seeks to alleviate poverty. The group brings meals to local motels that house those on the edge of homelessness and strives to meet the physical, relational and spiritual needs that those in poverty may have.

“Here in Williamsburg … you see poverty portrayed as such an important issue, something that’s so prevalent in the community,” Greater City member Matthew Tucker ’22 said. “So, I think it’s important to engage the college students that make up such a large portion of the community in this problem that we have the ability to efficiently address.”

The panelists began the event by introducing their personal backgrounds in poverty and their continued experience with tackling the issue.

The speakers offered insight into the different contributing causes of homelessness. Executive Director of Williamsburg House of Mercy Shannon Woloszynowski highlighted the tourism-driven economy in Williamsburg, which leaves people unemployed during certain seasons.

“Because [tourism is] at the crux of it,” Woloszynowski said. “We talk about housing, we talk about affordable housing, but if we can get people employed at a living wage, we can get them stabilized.”

Panelist Charvalla West, who works with United Way, a nonprofit that seeks to help those in need get out of poverty, drew attention to the impact of relationships. She recounted the importance of having social support in her upbringing, which she doesn’t see happening much in the community.

“There’s this relational poverty that we need to address,” West said. “This social capital is another that’s coming around as a buzzword. But being able to call on people who can be there for you.”

Williamsburg Housing Department’s Public Housing Manager JaLauna Burton discussed other factors that contribute to poverty, including mental illnesses and criminal backgrounds. She explained that people with criminal backgrounds face barriers not only in employment but also in housing. She also talked about the set amount of Social Security benefits given to people with mental illness, which may not be enough to pay the bills but would be cut if the individuals sought out jobs.

“There are a lot of things that go hand-in-hand to tie individuals to poverty,” Burton said. “It starts with having a good job, but you have to have the tools to get that job.”

“There are a lot of things that go hand-in-hand to tie individuals to poverty,” Burton said. “It starts with having a good job, but you have to have the tools to get that job.”

The panelists discussed how poverty looks different in Williamsburg compared to nearby cities.

“For the City of Williamsburg, because it’s smaller, there is a concentration of poverty that looks a little different than in James City County, Edward County,” West said. “You add to it the student population in the City of Williamsburg, the percentage of people living in poverty is higher … but I think part of that is because it’s spread over a smaller geographical distance.”

“The common perception in Williamsburg is that we don’t have homeless people in Williamsburg,” Woloszynowski said. “The homeless in Williamsburg are by and large hidden.”

3e Restoration founder Fred Liggin said his nonprofit aims to help individuals transition out of poverty and break the cycle of homelessness. Liggin said Virginia’s high eviction rates make ending that cycle difficult.

“Virginia is the number-one state in the United States of America for evictions, and [the] top-six cities in all of the USA of evictions are in Virginia,” Liggin said. “So, you’re within earshot of some of the most evictions takeing place … [and] Williamsburg does become a landing spot.”

All four of the panelists agreed that the most impactful way students could contribute is by being open minded and helping to humanize those living in poverty. Burton urged people to be more compassionate and to try to escape the common stereotype of poverty being caused by laziness. He said that people have to look beyond what is in front of them and try to figure out how someone in poverty could have gotten into their current situation.

“Do not look at individuals that are in poverty as something below you, because we are all one check away from being where they are,” Burton said.

Liggin brought up the emotional impact of living in poverty and talked about how trauma that is often coupled with homelessness can affect a person’s cognitive and social realities as much as their physical one.

“When you encounter the man or woman living through homelessness, and they seem very disconnected or very despondent, remember that they were something,” Liggin said. “They hadn’t always been that way. Enter into that moment with them, be present with them, and maybe offer them a cup of coffee. Humanize their humanity, just for a moment, and you’ll be surprised at how far that goes.”

Woloszynowski emphasized the effect of volunteering on bridging the gap between those in poverty and those who are not. She said that it is essential to humanize the homeless and see them as not so different from ourselves.

“Don’t come in to observe — this isn’t a zoo,” Woloszynowski said.

“Don’t come in to observe — this isn’t a zoo,” Woloszynowski said. “Come in to roll your sleeves up and serve. You see these people as people, as human beings, as people who are struggling.”

West also encouraged students at the College to vote.

“As students in a college, in an institution, [you are] in a very privileged position in our community, and you have a voice that will be heard,” West said. “I say this on every panel: please vote. This is your home for the time that you are here. You count.”