Penn State Professor Hopes to Add Voices Through Homeless Narratives

14445565_10210580254330761_684080556_nPenn State Professor Joshua D. Phillips opened his latest book, “Homeless: Narratives from the Streets,” with a Mother Teresa quote, “Today it is fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately, it is not fashionable to talk with them.”

Phillips’ book, which served as his graduate dissertation from Southern Illinois University, is taken from spending 2012 to 2013 in a rural southern Illinois homeless community.

“We have a lot of conversations about people, but not with them,” he said. “There are a lot of macroeconomic conversations.” Phillips is concerned that, while people are debating welfare and other programs, the people doing the talking and deciding aren’t the ones affected.

“There’s a lot of people debating these issues, it’s always disappointing that very intelligent people have these conversations but fail to include the voices of people in these communities,” he said. “We always have to be conscious of whose voices we are listening to and whose are more marginalized.”

Phillips said he hopes his book can help “give the broader public more knowledge about the issues in the hopes that we can create policies to help.”

One of the most controversial policies, Phillips said, are food stamps. While food stamps were created to provide affordable meals, they often restrict what a person can purchase.

Food stamps cannot be used to purchase hot food, vitamins, soaps or diapers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“People who are homeless don’t have refrigerators or a place to store food,” Phillips said. “Some sell food stamps because the cash is more valuable.”

Another issue, Phillips said, was housing limitations. Since waitlists for affordable housing can be long, people who are finally offered jobs are hesitant to accept them out of fear of being kicked off the list.

“The question becomes: Do I want to take this job opportunity to bump my income up but at the same time lose my spot for housing?” Phillips said.

14442707_10210580251930701_1393438963_n-11He said that people, whether or not they are homeless, often take the path with the least resistance. There are certain policies in place that create a very big risk for people who are homeless to take that first big leap to independence, he said.

When Phillips was doing research at a 30-day homeless shelter in Illinois, he found that people were cautious to spend money traveling to a job interview in a different town if it didn’t guarantee a position.

“Should I spend that money for the workforce or try and just survive today?” he said. “It’s day-to-day survival and they are very hesitant to risk $10–20.”

Phillips has been studying homeless communities, fostering relationships and learning about the struggles of homeless people since 2003, he said, after volunteering at soup kitchens and Habitat for Humanity through Central Michigan University.

“We’ve been having these welfare policies for roughly 50 years, and there’s not a significant amount of change,” he said. “The policies aren’t working as robustly as I would like them too.”

Phillips said the major theme of his book is that “narratives matter.”

“Right now, the way we view homelessness is a community of people set far from society,” he said. “But relationships matter. If we want to have conversations about poverty, homelessness, welfare, then we need to get out and talk to them. These are real people who have real lives.”

Rebecca Fiore is a freelance writer who has previously written for The Boston Globe.

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