National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Month is held each year in November. One week in November, Rapid City as well as many other cities dedicate a week to runaway youth awareness and prevention, a well as homelessness and hunger awareness. This is specific time set aside as an annual week of action where people can come together to draw attention to poverty in their communities.
The Homeless Coalition Youth Task Force, which I am a part of, uses this week in particular as an important opportunity to educate our community about stereotypes and misperceptions related to homelessness and runaways. We want people to understand how much they can do in order to move us closer to a world where no one is hungry or homeless. People must first be informed about the issue before they can do anything to make a difference, this is why we believe awareness is very important. If anyone is interested in making change, they can volunteer to help service providers, advocate for policy change, come up with their own brilliant ideas, show compassion for people experiencing homelessness and so much more.
Every year, the Task Force organizes a number of activities to draw awareness to issues of homelessness and runaway youth in Rapid City. Part of our activities this year involved public art because of the specific power that it has to get across a message. Public art is also really effective in attracting people’s attention. It can create a greater sense of identity and understanding of where we live and work. I was able to be a part of a few public art projects intended to create new conversations about homelessness in our community. We chose to do a mural in Art Alley and a project we call Live Mannequin Display.
A group of teens involved in the Homeless Youth Task Force participated in the Live Mannequin Display by sitting on street corners in downtown Rapid City with cardboard signs with facts and statistics about both national and local homelessness. My definite favorite of these signs stated “Homeless and runaway youth are not 'bad kids,' they are typically good kids, who are caught in bad situations.” There is an obvious stigma surrounding kids who run away, whether it is that they are trouble makers or other negative names that follow a person who runs away from home. This is so important to talk about especially because that kind of stigma is actively discouraging runaways from seeking help. Parents need to be educated about what factors in a young person’s life could lead to them running away. One of the most important factors of runaway prevention starts in each and every household, with education.
While I was on the corner holding my sign many people stopped, read my sign, and asked some questions. Other people shared their own experiences. Some cars honked and gave us a thumbs-up. And there were a few people who tried to share negative misconceptions about homeless people, which I think just reinforced the need for awareness and education.
The mural we created is in Art Alley. It is titled “Homelessness is a Community Issue that Affects Individuals, Not an Individual Issues that Affects Communities.” This is meant to address the tendency to blame homeless people for their situation instead of addressing the core issues that lead people into homelessness like prejudice, low wages, lack of affordable housing and high school dropout rates. The mural is intended to be a direct call on every member of this community to do their part. Everybody has a part to do.
It took us four days to paint the mural. During that time a lot of people stopped and asked us what we were doing and visited about their thoughts on homelessness. One morning a few people experiencing homelessness stopped and talked with us about the mural. People offered us tips, thanked us for our effort and asked how they could help.
The mural includes the number of The Helpline Center, which is 211. It is a resource for people looking for volunteer opportunities and ways to help, as well as people struggling with homelessness who need to be connected to other resources.
Find something to do.
Educate yourself on the issue, volunteer at the Hope Center, organize a coat drive, think up solutions for affordable housing, knit some hats and gloves to donate, purchase holiday gifts for kids who are living in shelters, or simply be kind to the next person you meet who does not have a home.