Education, advocacy and service. These words are the three pillars for Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (HHAW). Right before students rush home to fill their bellies with stuffing and turkey, HHAW hosts events across America in the week before Thanksgiving to remind individuals of those less fortunate.
Villanova University hosted HHAW from November 11th through the 17th. Throughout the week, students coordinate events like the Solidarity Sleepout, the Hunger Run 5k and keynote addresses to inform the Villanova community of the hunger and homelessness crisis within the Philadelphia area.
The three keynote speakers, each of which had formerly experienced homelessness, were guests from the National Coalition for Homelessness (NCH). HHAW is co-sponsored by the National Student Campaign against Hunger and Homelessness (NSCHH) and the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH)
Dressed in baggy clothes and carrying a black garbage bag, the keynote spoke about his homeless experience. He alluded to this unnamed disease that forced him leave his job and eventually lead to his homelessness. As he spoke about his life story, he began shedding pieces of his clothing to reveal a crisp suit underneath his tarnished clothing. At the end of the speech, he illustrated that the unnamed disease was addiction. Unbeknownst to the crowd, the speaker, Donald Whitehead Jr., was the executive director of NCH. He chooses one place per year to perform this speech, and this year he chose Villanova University. This performance is meant to show a visual transformation from homelessness and illuminate its underlying factors, such as addiction.
Later in the week, I sat down with Morgan Micari and Cassie Dimitry, two of the student leaders for HHAW, to discuss the mission and vision of HHAW.
“With one of our pillars being education, we try to remind people that these issues aren’t so far away,” Micari said. “We believe it is critically important to educate Villanova students, as they will be our future policy makers and caretakers. We want to let them know that policy has an effect.”
Aspiring to breakdown the negative stereotypes, HHAW intends to change the language surrounding homelessness.
“There is a difference between someone experiencing homelessness and someone who is homeless,” Dimitry explained. “Just because they are experiencing it doesn’t mean it’s a defining characteristic.”
HHAW has numerous partners including Catholic Relief Services, Project HOME, Back on My Feet, Catholic Network of Volunteer Services, and others. This year the organization added another partner called Bebashi, a hunger relief service organization in the Philadelphia area. HHAW raises money for these programs by collecting meal donations from students. They collected over 1,000 this year.
The organization encourages individuals to not only give meal donations, but also give support as often a possible: “Don’t be afraid to give someone money if you see them,” Dimitry said. “If you are able and willing, it could give that person a hot meal for the day. Don’t think that you are saving them from drugs and alcohol by not helping them. Addiction is both the cause and effect of homelessness, both the experience of being on the street and it is a source of escape. You can’t always assume that the ‘drugs got them.’”
Outside of awareness week, the organization hosts activities such as food drives and offers volunteer opportunities. HHAW strives to stimulate discussion and change to transform homelessness into a reality of the past.