STEP hosts week to fight poverty

When 19-year-old Charlie came out to his parents in sixth grade, the reaction was less than positive. Eventually, after the loss of his mother to cancer and several altercations, his father kicked him out of the house, leaving him homeless.

“He told me to pack my bags and go,” said Charlie, who preferred only to be identified by his first name.

Charlie was one of two high school seniors who shared their stories with about 25 UM students Monday night during a discussion on sexual orientation and youth homelessness put on by Students Together Ending Poverty (STEP). He did not wish to disclose his last name due to privacy reasons.

“Adults experiencing homelessness don’t tend to have a problem with identifying themselves,” said Barbara Junge, a previous board member for the Miami Coalition for the Homeless. “Kids don’t usually want to because they’re scared.”

The discussion was part of STEP’s annual Hunger and Homelessness Week, comprising several events in an attempt to raise awareness, educate students and inspire action.

“For me, it’s about sharing that poverty — this vague term — is really people’s lives,” STEP President Kristy Sessions said. “A lot of students can’t ignore it anymore when they’re confronted with it.”

In partnership with the Butler Center, STEP also offered students a film screening Monday of “A Place at the Table: One Nation. Underfed” and a display of photos by Lee Jeffries, a photographer known for his stark portraits of homelessness.

Other events will extend beyond the week, including Project Clean Plate in April.

Students in the dining halls will be encouraged to reduce their food waste, and the difference will be donated to Camillus House, a nonprofit that provides services to people who are homeless and impoverished in Miami.

STEP will also celebrate a permanent addition to UM’s campus: one of Miami-Dade Homeless Trust’s colorful parking meters designed by neo-pop artist Romero Britto. The meters, scattered throughout Miami-Dade County, collect funds for the trust.

Thursday’s discussion, held in the apartment of Scot Evans, faculty master in Eaton Residential College, helped shed light on the challenges homeless youth face. While the two stories were different, both shared a common thread — family situations that were beyond their control.

“How many of you still have both your parents?” asked Monica, also only referred to by her first name. Most raised their hands. “Well, I have none of my parents.”

Monica explained that her mother’s battles with drug-abuse, breast cancer and HIV meant foster care and eventual placement with an aunt who was emotionally abusive and repeatedly kicked her out of the house.

Students asked questions about Monica and Charlie’s experiences, from how they found food to what it was like to go to school while balancing the stressors of homelessness.

“Sometimes it feels like you just can’t anymore,” Charlie said.

He added that he often hears stories about kids who want to kill themselves.

“I tell them, ‘Your life isn’t going to consist of this forever,’” he said.

Other students were curious about state aid and shelters.

Junge explained that it is difficult for older youth to find space at shelters, as they are considered low priority. Additionally, LGBT teens like Charlie are at a higher risk for assault.

But past strife doesn’t prevent Monica and Charlie from hopes for the future. Monica plans to attend business school at Miami-Dade College, while Charlie has his own plan.

“Mine’s easy. It’s one word. Broadway,” he said.

Today, Charlie stays with a friend while Monica has been allowed to remain at a halfway house for free because she cannot afford rent, even though she is not in rehabilitation.

Charlie said he believes his mother would be supportive of him if she were still alive today. He remembers the day she met his boyfriend.

“My mom looks at me and says ‘Well, at least you know how to pick the right gays,’” he said. “I’m pretty sure if she was still around, she would be okay with who I am.”

Shelby Juarez, a senior civil and architectural engineering major, said the discussion broadened her perspective.

“You hold assumptions about the world, and you need to hear stories to challenge those assumptions,” said Juarez, who is also the president of SpectrUM. “I have to understand other issues to understand my own. These aren’t issues of homelessness or LGBTQ. They’re human issues.”

Monica had a message for the students who heard her story Thursday night.

“Get involved,” she said. “Don’t just take the information and run.”

STEP’s ongoing opportunities for student involvement include tutoring at Overtown Youth Center on Saturday and fundraising.