Local non-profit teaches valuable lesson

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In a world in which there are a lot of tough issues and rarely any easy answers, there aren’t many questions that are more difficult to answer, or more immediately relevant, than those regarding solutions to homelessness issues. Yet, without asking the questions, the solutions seem to verge on the edge of impossibility.
Jeremy Weatherly, an employee for the Macon Faces of Homelessness Bureau, a project that is a part of the National Coalition for the Homeless, believes that the project is an important movement in America.
When asked about the goals of the organization, he said,  “It’s two words: education advocacy,” saying, “The goal of the bureau is to educate the public on the problem of homelessness. It’s literally to put a face to the issue of homelessness.”
The organization seeks to develop a relationship and awareness between the homeless and the community at large.
The Speaker’s Bureau does so by working closely with the homeless or the formerly homeless as speakers and advocators.
Caitlin Donnely, another employee of the Bureau, said, “It’s a public education program. We talk about some of the statistics and facts surrounding homelessness. We discuss a little bit about the myths and stereotypes people have about homeless people. Then we have our speakers tell their stories.”
The program is very diverse and customizable and the speakers present on a variety of topics such as abuse, addiction, spirituality, education, health care.  The bureau is always looking for new venues.
Not only does this start a conversation with the community, but it also gives solace to the speakers themselves.
Randy Bedingfield*, one of the Bureau’s speakers, a former Mercer student and talented pianist, talked about what the organization meant to him.  “It was kind of a catharsis to get out and talk about everything that happened,” he said.
Again and again, the theme reappeared that the issue is not just about addressing the homeless’ physical needs, but also about addressing their needs as human individuals within the community. “Most people ignore them- they feel invisible,” Donnely said. “It takes a huge emotional toll on a person. It’s a traumatic, tragic thing. It’s hard to recover from that.”
Weatherly said it’s hard to imagine being so far reduced and then having people who pass you on the street treating you as if you’re “subhuman.”
“Treat people with respect and dignity,” said Donnely in reference to what people can do. It’s things as small as smiling and making eye contact with the people that you share your city with. “You’ll be shocked what they tell you- How much they remind you of yourself – your own family,” she said.
Addressing what else Mercer students and the Macon community can do, Weatherly mentioned a 48-hour homeless challenge. “The idea is for someone to live 48 hours in the shoes of a homeless individual and develop an understanding of what they go through – where you actually feel that kind of disconnect from everyone else,” he said.
There are plenty of other opportunities to address this issue as well. Many organizations such as Macon Outreach on First Street have food programs and are always accepting volunteers.
Donnely talked about “building a bridge” and it’s safe to say that there is something to be gained from likening this multi-faceted problem to something physically connective, for there is a very visceral physical connection between those of us that have and those that do not.
Weatherly said he wanted students to know that “Mercer’s in a neighborhood that’s surrounded with homeless people.”
He said, “not to be afraid of them, but to be aware that there are a lot of homeless people right there next to them.”
The conversations centered on communication, not solutions. “You’re not going to figure out what to do about it if people don’t talk about it. Today I don’t know what the solution is, but I would love to talk about it to somebody and figure it out. I firmly believe that if you talk about something long enough, you discuss it in a very rational and objective way, you can come to a solution,” said Weatherly.

*This name was previously listed incorrectly