EL PASO – The projected image of a middle-aged man prostrate on the sidewalk, wrapped in a blanket in front of a downtown shop presented a stark image of homeless hopelessness highlighted by the daybreak sun.
“What really gets to me the most is that what I see a potential worker laying down in the street in front of a local business where he can’t work because he doesn’t have a home,” said Annette, one of a small group of homeless and former homeless persons who presented a series of stark photos they had taken to a recent conference here.
The projected images entitled “Voices and Images of Homelessness” told a story of fear, anger, but also one of hope and joy in life.
“I see people trying to survive. There is nowhere to go. Homelessness is everywhere. It is a reality. We need community awareness and action to address homelessness. Help one another,” said Annette. “Governments should ensure that federal, state and local funds support positive efforts to end homelessness.”
The conference, El Paso del Norte Region State of Homelessness Conference “The Faces of Homelessness,” is the second in a series of three held by the University of Texas at El Paso in partnership with the Opportunity Center for the Homeless. The first one, held last November, presented the current state of homelessness in the community.
“The reality is that we want to see how his community can come together against all levels; private and public sector, government, to begin to integrate mental health services with work force opportunities, with health care and with social services,” said Eva Moya, assistant professor at UTEP and one of the organizers of the conference.
Representatives from city shelters and the Rev. Mark J. Seitz, the Catholic Bishop of El Paso, exhorted the community to help support this cause.
“I’ve had to inform myself and then continue to assume what I can do as a follower of Jesus Christ. That kind of commitment in me will transfer into commitment from among other people in El Paso. Obviously we have a long way to go, but I am praying and hoping that we make this go,” said Bishop Seitz.
During a one year period, the Opportunity Center for the Homeless serves nearly 124,000 meals and provides thousands of nights of shelter to the needy. According to their site, they have counseled more than 2,000 men, women, and youth, and transitioned over 1,000 people into work, training and school programs.
“We have these social services, but we have them in sort of silos, and we have them within agencies. We want this community to really be strategic about the limited services we have and be able to make the most and therefore have better outcomes,” said Moya.
Democratic Texas State Senator from District 29, Jose Rodriguez, exhorted the group to include participation of persons experiencing homelessness as an integral part of community life.
“We need to do a better job of working together for this common goal. We are not maximizing the limited resources that we have,” Rodriguez said. “We need to include prevention and care for homeless persons from housing to mental, physical, legal and emotional well-being and to help them permit the affordable care act.”
Rodriguez said that the community needs to create sustainable and permanent funding for services and interventions for persons who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. Services such as education, health, transportation, employment, housing, mental and legal assistance are needed, he said.
“We need to provide timely and qualified access to mental facilities to help prevent and address coexisting issues,” Rodriguez said.
The stereotype of a homeless is of a person who is begging for spare change on the street to buy food, beer or drugs. Social workers who participated in the conference and participants of the Voices and Images Project echoed what the senator said.
“There are a lot of opportunities to do more and to do better in this community like any other. There is not a magic recipe on how to eradicate homelessness, otherwise it would happen,” Moya said.
The last official count demonstrates that 578,424 experience homelessness in the United States, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The third and final conference will take place in the next few months and will focus on integration for homeless people and delivery of social services.