Sharing your spare change does not bring about real change.
That was one of many key messages delivered on Friday by a panel of experts on homelessness who visited St. Thomas University, which for several years has been the home of this annual event.
In the audience were more than 800 students from 21 Miami-Dade County high schools.
The speakers and students were there to commemorate National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness week, which officially starts on November 12.
As the students arrived for Friday’s event, they were greeted by Carol City’s band, The Marching Chiefs, who gave a rousing performance. In addition, radio personality Kimmy B and DJ Hercules kept the audience entertained until the speakers took the stage.
Many of the students wore black T-shirts that read:
“No one rests until everyone has a home.”
Friday’s speakers included:
- Bo Rico Hall, who was once homeless and hopeless. He now helps get people off the street, working as part of the Miami Beach Police Department’s Homeless Resource Unit.
- Ellie Addison Phelps, who was homeless and suicidal as a child and is still just 20 years old – not much older than the kids in the audience
- Ron Book, an advocate for the homeless. He is the chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.
The panelists pointed out that, in Miami alone, people donate roughly $35 million annually to those who are experiencing homelessness.
But while that is generous, it actually makes the homelessness problem worse.
“When you drop spare change into those buckets, cups and hats, listen to (Hall), who lived on the streets,” Book said. “The money you donate to someone living on the street doesn’t buy beds. It doesn’t buy services. It doesn’t buy food.”
Those donations, Book said, reinforce the idea to those living on the street that is where they should stay.
“When you bring pizza boxes to people living on the street, you think it’s the humanitarian thing to do,” Book said. “But if you eat on the street, what do you do with your garbage? You drop it on the street. If you eat on the street, you defecate and urinate on the street, creating a public-health hazard for the community.”
It’s the same thing with people who donate tents for those experiencing homelessness.
“Tents don’t get anyone off the street,” Book said. “They sustain people on the streets.”
Hall, whose life was saved by the Miami Rescue Mission, said it’s not easy convincing someone to come in off the streets.
“Sometimes,” Hall said, “it takes years for a homeless person to agree to come in and get help.”
Phelps knows all about homelessness. She was just seven years old when it happened to her.
“My parents were suffering through a hard time in their marriage,” Phelps said. “My mother and I went to live in a ‘family and children’ shelter in Indianapolis.”
The food at the shelter was so bad, Phelps said, that she went to school mainly to get what passed as a decent meal.
Phelps said she went to bed ‘starved’ just about every night, crying herself to sleep. She also wore the same clothes to school every day because that was all she had to wear.
“I got picked on so bad,” she said. “I tried to kill myself at age seven.”
Phelps said her confidence took a hit.
“But I never allowed that experience to hinder me,” Phelps said. “It always pushed me forward. I graduated from Carol City High in the top 10 percent.”
Phelps is currently studying to get her real estate license.
Hall, the first speaker, told his own harrowing tale that ultimately ended in triumph.
He was homeless from the time he was 14, and Hall dropped out of Miami Beach High in the 11th grade.
“I didn’t care about living or dying,” Hall said of his drug-addiction days. “I was wearing the same underwear and socks for weeks, eating out of garbage cans. I was homeless and hungry, in and out of juvenile detention.
“I had a lot of hurt, a lot of pain, a lot of loneliness. I gave up on life. I had been shot a couple of times. I did drugs, sold drugs …
“You name it, and I did it. I overdosed twice. I would get out of Jackson Hospital and did it all over again.”
In 2001, Hall finally decided to go to the Miami Rescue Center, where he received the “love, support and help that I desperately needed.”
Hall said the right thing to do for people interested in donating is to contact organizations such as: