It is seldom that we come across people who are willing to take initiatives that might trigger a change in the attitude of young people. A local shelter home, however, sets an example after they came forward to help some youngsters understand what homelessness really is.
A group of university students from Northern Arizona University dressed as homeless people for Halloween and the images went viral for all the wrong reasons. The photos showed five students with signs such as, “Hungry college dropout” and “Immigrant mother of 10—anything helps!” Thousands of people condemned the actions of the students and criticized them online calling them racists and insensitive, according to 12News. However, one homeless shelter took a very different approach to the actions of these students.
The Flagstaff Shelter Services came forward and offered to help these students understand the realities of homelessness. The executive director, Ross Altenbaugh wrote, “After working at Flagstaff Shelter Services for the past five years and in the field for over 20 years, I have learned many well-meaning people just do not understand what it’s like to have nothing or nowhere to go. Misconceptions like “they are lazy” or “they just don’t want to work” surround people experiencing homelessness.” She further said, “Many suffer from significant mental or physical illness or substance use disorders. Many have no family to call upon. Too many are our veterans. The majority of women or those that identify as women are victims of physical and sexual violence with nowhere to turn.”
She went on to speak about herself and said how it was easy for a person without enough support to end up on the streets. She then went on to quote the incident regarding the students. “By now, you’ve probably heard about the college students who dressed like people experiencing homelessness for Halloween this year. At first, I was outraged. But then I realized what an awesome opportunity we have to engage young people through this lens,” said the woman. She said that it was important to let young people know of the effects of poverty on children and adults. She argued it was everybody’s responsibility to come forward to solve this issue.
“So instead of shaming these kids, I want to personally invite each of them to come volunteer at Flagstaff Shelter Services. Meet the people we serve, and look in their eyes. Come see the humanity that exists here every day, and be part of it. Please come be part of the solution, we can show you how,” She said, inviting the students to the local shelter. The post was very well received by people. They were mesmerized by the shelter’s positive response and applauded its offer. “You have a wonderful attitude & heart, Ross Altenbaugh, & I hope you will be taken up on your offer! We take much for granted until it affects us directly,” wrote one user. Another wrote, “Ross, you’re my heroine. And I have some winter clothes coming your way. Blessings.”
Meanwhile, the University said that the students have understood their mistakes. NAU’s President Rita Cheng said, “A recent Halloween post by NAU students has been taken seriously. The Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Engagement and Inclusive Excellence met with the students yesterday. The students recognized the seriousness of their actions and apologized. NAU values and supports free speech. However, speech that is demeaning to others does not represent our values.”