My name is George Caponigro. I am a human being living on this planet, a citizen of the United States and the world who spent some time without a home. For well over 20 years, I have worked on the frontlines of social justice at the local, state and national level, and I’ve been exposed to some of the greatest minds and people who’ve dedicated their lives to the issue.
I never intended to become an activist and advocate for social justice. Only now do I understand that it was due to a divine calling that I wound up at the First Church Shelter run by First Church In Cambridge. The mission of this shelter is social justice. Had I chosen to go to any other shelter to work on my issues, I would never have been involved in social justice or afforded opportunities that many others who do not have a home do not receive.
Because of this shelter, I had access to the press, and many people who work on various issues. I have had a spotlight on me that so many others who do not have a home are not given. I write this because I was afforded this spotlight to share with others. I only write this to share my experiences and my work on the frontlines with young people and children at risk and with homeless prevention.
Two of my accomplishments in this work are being a recipient of the Mitch Snyder award and serving for a year on the board of directors of Homestart.
It is extremely important to understand the reality of homelessness. Homeless people come from every background and segment of society. Young people and children are among the fastest growing segment of homeless people. It really frustrates me that the media portrays homeless people addicts or alcoholics living on the street.
It is very important to deal with some of the most afflicted and do what we can to help them, and it is great for fundraising and creating public awareness. But in my opinion, it is grossly unfair to the entire population of homeless people. Addicts are not the majority of homeless people and should not receive the most attention. There are homeless people living in shelters and in recovery, working their butts off doing all the right things. These people are just as important, if not more so, because they are an example to other homeless people.
I wish the media would understand that there are a range of stories. This would make their stories more compelling, and they would be more balanced in their reporting of the issues. I have seen many changes in homelessness through the years, but I’ve not seen our officials respond to the changing demographic issues. There needs to be more urgent action. The shelters are overcrowded, and the conditions in many are deplorable.
In my experience, public officials are tasked with creating budgets for all citizens. They have to make choices, and yes, at times, these are very difficult choices. But many of their choices and priorities are not going to make much of a difference at all to homeless people. They announce to the press over and over that people shouldn’t worry and should just trust them. “We have this homeless problem covered,” they announce. They introduce five-year and ten-year plans and then just kick the homeless can down the road to the next administration to deal with.
I’ve seen, every Christmas and Thanksgiving, our officials going to Pine Street or some other shelter for a photo opportunity with the homeless. But I see how much they’re doing and how much they care. I have little or no faith in them.
America is now switching from the criminalization of substance abuse and mental health to providing an army of social workers, mental health professionals, alcohol and drug counselors, treatment programs and beds. We need to keep in mind that there are 40 million people at or below the poverty line, and these are the people who are most affected by these issues.
Poverty and homelessness have been studied to death for years. There are proven solutions to these issues: housing first, treatment, safe and clean environments where recovery is encouraged, a base where people can work on a path out and, most importantly, an urgent plan to give people a path out in a reasonable amount of time.
I have learned that what happens to someone doesn’t define them. It’s how people live their lives that defines them. Nobody can take your dignity away. You can only give it away. That is why i refer to the homeless as people without a home.
I’d like to close by mentioning what doing this work has been like for me. The first event that sticks out in my mind was during a time when I had no experience of this kind of work. I went with a group from First Church to Washington D.C. to protest against Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. We put together a beef stew meal and joined with many others at the largest shelter in America. This was mostly the work of Mitch Snyder.
I think we spent a week there. When I stood on a platform and spoke, I felt important. It was exciting to be making a difference. For quite a few years, I did quite a bit of traveling to different events in different states and went to many events at the local, state and national level. Only now, after all these years, do I understand that I had an innate skill and a culinary background that allowed me to be successful at this work. There were many times that the work was heartbreaking and frustrating, and it demanded great courage and sacrifice. However, I received far more than I ever gave. God bless. I would love to hear from you at: firstname.lastname@example.org.