Habitat for the Homeless week: Is misrepresentation necessary to get college students on board with effective programs?
November 29, 2007
When most Americans hear the words "Habitat for Humanity," they likely envision Jimmy Carter hammering a few nails into a wooden frame in whatever third-world country happens to be his current cause celebre. Unfortunately, the association with the unpopular former President, and the connotations that this association involves -- combined with the incorrect assumption that Habitat is a "giveaway" program that provides houses free of charge to welfare queens and their ilk the world over -- often combine to overshadow the good that Habitat actually represents.
Habitat for Humanity does not exist to take labor from the able-bodied and turn it into free houses for those who will not work to support themselves. On the contrary; it is the ultimate marketplace result of the conservative mindset in action: men and women willingly volunteering their time to help those who are doing (and will continue to do) their utmost to help themselves, and rewarding those who have been good stewards of their time and their money, and who simply need one final push to get over the top, and to become a homeowner.
However, in its fight to accurately portray itself and its activities, the organization is often undermined by people affiliated with the organization in some way or another who, whether intentionally or because of a lack of knowledge, misrepresent Habitat for Humanity's purpose, as well as those that it exists to help.
In mid-November at the University of Georgia, the student-run affiliate of Habitat celebrated its annual "Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week." This national event, which was sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless and held in cooperation with groups like the "Students for Environmental Awareness" and "UGA Progressives," included such activities as a screening of Sicko, Michael Moore's latest film; a student-faculty forum entitled "Too Many Children Left Behind - Addressing the Education Gap"; and a "Provide Housing for People with AIDs" letter-writing campaign.
These events carried out by the UGA Habitat affiliate were not sanctioned by Habitat for Humanity International; rather, the students involved in (and leading) the organization were engaging in activities that Habitat for Humanity would never sponsor.
The week ended with a "Broken Bread Poverty Meal," which, according to UGA Habitat for Humanity's website, is "a creative activism event sponsored by Acting on AIDS. Participants are invited to identify, interact with and intercede for those broken by the cycle of AIDS, poverty, and hunger. Using a simple porridge meal, true-to-life stories, discussion, prayer and advocacy, students are invited to engage their faith and respond with their hearts and through their citizenship."
For the last several years, UGA Habitat for Humanity's "awareness week," the climax of the group's activities for the year (and generally the only non-meeting activities it sponsors) has also included a two-day "homeless awareness" project. In this activity, representatives of UGA Habitat attempt to raise awareness among their fellow students for the plight of the homeless by building cardboard huts out of their used pizza, DVD player, and HDTV boxes, placing those "homes" at the student center in the middle of campus, and then sitting around in them for a few hours at a time -- while listening to music and eating pizza and other fast food -- before retiring to their comfy dormitory or apartment bedrooms for the night, satisfied at having done their good deed for the day.
Unfortunately, it appears that those most in need of raised awareness are the student members of UGA Habitat, whose activities -- topped off by the supremely insulting cardboard sleepover -- display either a complete lack of comprehension about what it is that Habitat for Humanity as an organization does (and who it is that it helps), or a willful misrepresentation of the same for the purpose of garnering attention and donations, and adding to their membership new bleeding-heart adolescents who can actually be persuaded to believe that they are making a difference in the world by taking a few hour break from their video games to sit in cardboard boxes.
Then again, given the penchant for sensationalism present among liberal college-age activists, perhaps UGA Habitat would have a great deal of trouble recruiting members and getting people to sign up for events if these student activists -- who prefer meaninglessly symbolic on-campus gestures to real work -- became aware of the truth: that Habitat for Humanity has never housed an American homeless person. Furthermore, it has never given so much as a single free meal to a starving individual, nor provided a free house for a person with AIDS or any other disease (nor officially endorsed any activities raising "awareness" for the same).
Instead, Habitat for Humanity pursues the far nobler goal of using volunteer labor (a word that most college activists are as unfamiliar with as they are with its synonym, "work") to construct affordable at-cost housing for those who have the job, income, and credit to qualify for a mortgage, but who have not been able to own a house before due to a variety of reasons.
From Habitat International's own website (emphasis added):
Habitat is not a giveaway program. In addition to a down payment and the monthly mortgage payments, homeowners invest hundreds of hours of their own labor -- sweat equity -- into building their Habitat house and the houses of others.Unfortunately, "good credit," "homes for those who qualify and are willing to work for them," and other merit-based attributes are not exactly slogans that resonate with today's activist college students -- a demographic that appears intent on passively (and sweatlessly) making its mark in the world by raising bogus "awareness" rather then by actually working to make a difference.
Jeff Emanuel, a University of Georgia alumnus, was a member of the Athens-Oconee (GA) Habitat for Humanity Public Relations Board in 2005.