A picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of “Witnesses to Hunger” an exhibit showcasing photos of Americans in various cities who found themselves suddenly living hand-to-mouth, a picture can prove priceless. Unceremoniously cast aside by city officials and left to fend for themselves, subjects of the exhibit detail, with pinpoint accuracy and heart-wrenching insight, their struggles to make ends meet. College-educated and formerly self-sufficient, their photos showcase the benign neglect they face with the devastating loss of affordable housing units — 30,000 in D.C. alone, replaced by luxury apartments in an eight-year span (2002 -2010). Started in Philadelphia in 2008, Witnesses to Hunger began as a research and advocacy project (within Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-free Communities).
Nefatera McQueen knows all too well the stigma attached to poverty. In addition to being thought of as lazy, siphoning-off -the-system, and somehow responsible for being unable to meet the demands of her bills, McQueen said most Americans believe that the homeless possess an inherent inability to cope. But for McQueen, a college graduate with a biology degree that has garnered little more than student loan debt, nothing could be farther from the truth.
“I am a full-time worker with full-time jobs, only the money I earn doesn’t meet the bills, and believe me, I am not living above my means with some extravagant lifestyle. It is really hand to mouth,” McQueen told Acumen during the exhibit’s 2017 opening. “Photos of me show and prove that the stereotype of lazy, uneducated women with a mountain of children and no ambition, is a boogeyman used to misinform and encourage those who can change the system to ignore it instead.” Ignoring the problem, according to the Center for Hunger-free Communities, has allowed the rates of hunger across the nation to rise to include more than 45 million people. – living below the poverty threshold of $19,100 a year.
Like McQueen, the salary of those millions place, them a few dollars above the threshold, rendering them ineligible for food subsidy programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). According to Ryan Palmer, director of stakeholder engagement of Martha’s Table, a nonprofit advocating food justice, poverty, and homelessness are often a matter of access.
“Those facing poverty are not just sitting around waiting for a handout, they are working really hard at two and three jobs,” Palmer said. “There are issues of access to quality services and products because living where you can afford often means being situated in food deserts where fresh food and groceries, are not available.” Homeless services volunteer Maria Malcolm said that the face of homelessness has changed significantly in the 10 years since she began passing out meals, money, and clothing in area parks.
In addition to many more women, she said homeless populations now include young adults between the ages of 16 and 23 and those with untreated mental and emotional conditions. “Once a person loses their home, they effectively become invisible. You no longer see them as women or victims of abuse; you do not look them in their faces or attempt to validate their humanity by speaking to them,” Malcolm said. “The resulting isolation – even on a busy street – diminishes very capable human beings and corrupts the nation. Under COVID-19, I am seeing some of the very people who once yelled at the homeless to ‘get a job,’ sitting among them. Anyone can become homeless and that is a lesson some very arrogant people are learning firsthand.”
Malcolm said the numbers are far greater than data sets show, as millions of homeless youth and young adults currently “sofa surf” — spending two to three nights at a time at various friends’ homes without a permanent residence. “We even have people resorting to sleeping in storage facilities to keep a roof over their heads because the streets are not safe and reasonably priced housing is scarce. As a nation, we must learn to do better.”