A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
Nov. 5, 2009 Volume 40 / Number 2


Looking Homelessness in the Eyes:

A Student’s Perspective on the Town Hall Meeting

Although I’ve lived in Chico for almost four years and have experienced much of what Butte County has to offer, there are still many things in this region I’ve yet to discover. I haven’t hiked to Feather Falls to see the sixth largest waterfall in the nation or toured the Bidwell Mansion.

And I have to admit that it wasn’t until the town hall meeting Oct. 14 in the BMU that I took the time to notice the homeless population living in the community alongside me.

The town hall meeting was organized by the First-Year Experience Program as part of the year-long program for this year’s Book in Common, The Soloist , by Steve Lopez . There I learned that homeless people represent .5 percent of the population—a significant 1,380 people. And 31 percent of the homeless population is afflicted by some type of mental illness.

But the event went beyond simply analyzing the problem through numbers by also focusing on helping participants understand what it’s really like to be homeless.

President Zingg, in an opening statement for the meeting, stressed the important role understanding plays in the process of developing well-informed solutions.

“Action without understanding has no meaning,” he said.

The event provided multiple ways to gain this understanding, including a short film that gave a voice to homeless and mentally ill persons living in the region and the chance to participate in roundtable discussions of the issues facing homeless guests living in shelters.

First, the film gave Butte County’s homeless population a face and a voice through clips of interviews with individuals throughout the region. Many expressed fear for their safety, but also hope for the future. Most striking was the comment made by a man standing in front of the same liquor store I often pass. He said he only had two options left: turn his life around or commit suicide.

In hindsight, he and I have probably crossed paths more than once. I’ve driven past the liquor store on the corner of 9th and Broadway countless times, but each time I’ve been too wrapped up in my own life to pay any attention to his.

While homelessness and mental illness affect many lives in the region, I realize now how common it is to turn away from the person on the street and remain unaware of the breadth of the problem.

The town hall meeting enabled participants to learn about homelessness and mental illness from people who understand the problem all too well.

Participants, including homeless guests living in shelters, were randomly assigned to tables throughout the room. Each group was given five questions to discuss regarding the issues. Those of us who have never been homeless and those who have were able to discuss the issue and learn from each other. And despite group members’ differing backgrounds and perspectives, coming to an understanding was not difficult.

For example, my table quickly came to an agreement that there is still a stigma surrounding homelessness and mental illness due to a lack of knowledge. I think this stigma stems from the perceived distance between community members and the homeless population. Unless we sit down and have a conversation with an individual living on the streets, it’s impossible for us to truly understand how that person came to be in the situation. Instead, many people assume everyone living on the streets is either addicted to drugs, uneducated, or just doesn’t want to work hard enough to make it on his or her own.

But at the town hall meeting, I learned that this is not the case across the board. About 20 percent of the homeless population in Butte County has some college education. And sitting down with a few people who were once homeless and learning their stories emphasized this even further.

One man explained that the only way he could handle the symptoms of his mental illness was sleeping. Holding down a job became impossible and he ended up living in his car until he could get the right medication to improve his mental health. 

Another woman said she was a straight “A” student in high school who had the opportunity to attend Harvard, where her mother was a professor, or any university of her choice. But drug abuse led her to homelessness.

Unfortunately, not everyone has this kind of opportunity to have a conversation with a homeless person and learn to consider him or her as an individual. Approaching a homeless person on the street would be too far outside my and many other people’s comfort zones.

The town hall meeting was one way for these two worlds that are normally set apart to come together and forge an understanding. It doesn’t stop there, however. The First-Year Experience Program has planned events on campus and in the community throughout the entire school year to continue the efforts to spread awareness and understanding about homelessness and mental illness in Butte County.

You can find out about these events by going to the BIC Web site at http://www.csuchico.edu/bic/calendar.shtml.

—Brittany Hopkins, Public Affairs Intern