3 Things I Learned About Hunger & Homelessness This Year

The majority of the work students do in our office falls into one of 4 categories–health & wellness, education & literacy, environmental justice, and hunger & homelessness.  Each year, our students do a research project on one of our issue areas, with the goal of making strategic, informed changes to our programs.

This year we focused on the last item–hunger and homelessness.  Over 9 weeks students discovered new community organizations, issued surveys to the campus, read academic articles, and then wove everything together into the implications for our Center.

While I learned quite a bit from their work, three things in particular stand out, things I just was not aware of before this year.  Before this project, I was not aware of…

The need to separate hunger from homelessness.

It’s a little funny that one major finding challenged the very category they were researching, but the fact is, hunger and homelessness in the U.S. are not necessarily correlated to one another.

Being homeless increases your risk for experiencing hunger, but it is also possible for it not to be a factor.  For instance, if you understand the system, you can eat well over 10 meals a day for free on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

On the other hand, many of the people who experience food insecurity in the U.S. are housed, and often employed.  One does not equal the other.

The need for food banks and pantries, and what each one does.

When the project began, I didn’t really know there was a difference between a food bank and food pantry, nor did I know how incredibly important they are to addressing hunger.  (Food banks are major sources of food for a region, like L.A. or Ventura county.  They often have large warehouses to store food, as well as partnerships with grocery chains and farmers.  Banks then distribute to pantries that are local, often with many in a single town.)

The need to better address mental health for those experiencing homelessness (and why that is easier said than done.)

Mental health is a major issues for the homeless population, affecting about 30-33% comparing to 22% of the general population.  One study suggests that about half of those with mental illness developed their condition after they began experiencing homelessness.

But many organizations are simply not able to offer appropriate services.  Not only are they limited by the cost of employing the professionals, but often the condition of a homeless person inclines them towards distrust of authority as well as a fierce independence that makes them resist keeping regular appointments.

Unsurprisingly, diving deeper into these issues revealed far greater complexity than what one sees on the surface.  But in same way the depths of the ocean reveal treasures you can’t see from the surface, possibilities and potential solutions are brought up, like a sea cucumber, and you’d only find them by going deeper.

(I went to Catalina a couple of times with school, and we snorkeled in the freezing water.  I thought the coolest thing we found were the sea cucumbers, because they blended into the sand below, and because you could squeeze them and shoot water at each other like a squirt-gun, without hurting the critter.)

So we learned about a food bank that uses gleaning to offer more fresh produce than is usually available, and a transitional housing facility that only accepts mentally ill women so that it can concentrate on the mental health services they need. Perhaps more importantly, we learned why those organizations were so uniquely important to serving those experiencing hunger or homelessness.

The students used other sources than the ones linked above, but I don’t have links handy.  So I wanted to be sure to offer these as a quick option for reading about mental health and the homeless.

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