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Poverty Conference Seeks Solutions to Homelessness

Speakers and participants of the 10th Biennial Vincentian Chair of Social Justice Conference,
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Reaching out to those in need—especially the homeless—is a cornerstone of St. John’s University’s Vincentian Mission. Equally important is the effort to identify and find solutions to the root causes of the problem. These were the goals of the 10th Biennial Vincentian Chair of Social Justice Conference, held October 21 at the D’Angelo Center on the Queens campus.

Entitled “A Focus on the Common Good: Homelessness and the Need for Systemic Change,” the day-long conference was sponsored by the Vincentian Center for Church and Society. It featured speakers on the forefront of confronting this issue, including one who had lived on the streets for 12 years.

The event drew nearly 250 members of the St. John’s community, along with invited guests who work hand-in-hand to combat this societal affliction. Nearly 160 of those in attendance were undergraduate students.

“We gather here this day not only to learn about the people experiencing homelessness, and why so many of these people locally, nationally, and globally do not have a place to call home, but we also come, like St. Vincent de Paul, to reach out to the homeless,” said Rev. Bernard Tracey, C.M., Executive Vice President for Mission. “Today is an opportunity to grow in our awareness, to deepen our knowledge of those who are homeless, and to join with them in changing systems, thus allowing each person a place to call home.”

“This emphasis coincides with the worldwide theme of homelessness selected for the 400th anniversary of the Vincentian Family,” stressed Rev. Patrick Griffin, C.M., Executive Director of the Vincentian Center. “One does not have to spend too much time in any major city to see the problem of homelessness expressed in flesh and blood. It is one of the most concerning issues of our time, and it has a myriad of causes.”

Outside the D’Angelo ballroom, an exhibition of photographs focused on homelessness. The work was created by St. John’s students in classes taught by William Morel, Assistant Professor of Photography, and Meghan J. Clark, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies.

Lee Stringer, an author who battled addiction on the streets of New York City for 12 years, credits writing about his experiences as his first step toward recovery. “People become homeless when, for one reason or another, the life they are living ceases to be viable,” he noted, adding that the causes are economic and emotional, including issues such as estrangement, disease, or despair over the death of a loved one. “Homelessness,” he said, “is not merely the absence of a roof. There’s something deeper happening.”

Mr. Stringer found his way out of homelessness through Project Renewal, an agency that empowered him to conquer addiction. “Those were not lost years,” he said. “They were years of great learning. There’s value in every situation, but particular opportunity in struggle.”

Rosanne Haggerty, President and Chief Executive Officer of Community Solutions, observed that organizations err by treating immediate problems (the need for a meal or a bed) instead of the overall issue. “It’s the organizations responding to these issues, and not the homeless themselves, that need to change,” she said.

Jim White, a native of Queens and Executive Director of Covenant House New Jersey, stressed the need to be “a humble beggar serving humble beggars. You need to see the divinity, the goodness, the God, in your brother and sister. We need to know we are the same.”

Students said they were moved by the speakers. “They were eloquent and raised challenging questions,” said Marlo Mitchell, a sophomore majoring in Homeland Security. “It really put the issue into perspective for me.”

“This conference was so inspiring—you could see the passion behind the new systems and approaches being put in place to tackle the homelessness issue,” observed Communications Arts major Jada Bradberry. “There’s so much caring within our community, a real dedication to fixing this issue.”