People’s University Highlights Dignity of Persons Affected by Homelessness

by | May 24, 2018 | News, Vincentian Family at the U.N.

Can you imagine just one day,
When you can wake well rested,
Make your coffee and breakfast,
Get ready to enter the world in a visible way,
Camouflaging yourself
Fitting right in and
Knowing for just one day
There’s an equal chance
You to(o) may win
All your losses begin to fade
Because one day we united
To help poverty fade
(Nikole Terzakos)

This poem by a recently deceased woman was a fitting opening for a recent session of People’s University. A new experience for me, People’s University is a gathering of diverse people learning through improvisation of situations experienced by persons living without homes and/or in poverty.

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The lesson doesn’t relate to quick answers or “fixing things.” It’s much more about recognizing the dignity in, and empathizing, with others so that they can experience  Nikole Terzakos’ dream of  a simple day of normalcy which is felt by many, but not by persons facing the multi-layered struggles of homelessness.

Attending People’s University was a refreshing change for me.  At the UN, we work for policy change which benefits persons living in poverty. With all the committee meetings, panels, wordsmithing, and other forms of advocacy attempted, my efforts limp unless time is periodically spent with people at the grass roots.  They are the true experts.

People’s University took place at ATD (All Together in Dignity) Fourth World, on the lower East Side of Manhattan.  ATD Fourth World is an international, nonprofit organization, originally founded in France.   It aims to eradicate chronic poverty through a human-rights based approach.

Our diverse group of about 25 to 30 people included a social worker,  students, a couple from a Queens  parish,  a woman from an evangelical outreach in the Bronx, persons who have dealt with homelessness, ATD Staff and many more.

“Nobody knows my name.”


We began with an ice breaker by sharing feelings elicited by pictures. Communications was the theme of today’s activities.  We discussed how communications can have a positive or negative effect upon homeless persons.  A communications tree was displayed, featuring various words such as eye contact, empathy, listening, sharing, participation, outcomes, and the like.

Three situations were addressed.  One portrayed how passersby treat homeless persons encountered on the street one cold evening; with some ignoring the woman and others engaging with her.  (It also showed the territorial nature of some persons on the streets).  A second scenario involved conflict among family as they worked out whether to stay in a shelter or move in with family.  A third situation involved an encounter between a homeless person seeking permanent shelter and a social worker, when permanent shelter was not immediately available. I was touched to learn later that one scene was created from the lived experience of a person among our group.

At any point in the improvisation, the word “freeze” could be shouted out and actors were replaced by other members of the group. Emotions expressed through the improve ranged from dismissive, concerned but unsure, or abrupt, to empathetic, worried,  understanding, caring and concerned, to real and engaged.


Dialogue which followed was rich, with participants noting many issues and emotions.   I learned much!

A lack of bathrooms and showers, sometimes violence, people sleeping in subways and on park benches, persons with mental illness, and uncleanliness or insecurity at some homeless shelters were mentioned.   It was also observed that some persons on the streets wish to be engaged while others do not want to be disturbed.

The frustration of not having a place to shower or bathe was noted.  Some shelters do not allow people to bring in their belongings.  Shelters can often be dirty and unsafe.  “The streets are cleaner than the shelters,” one participant said.   One might hear a mentally unstable person scream in the middle of the night.

It is clear that gentrification is pushing people out of many homes.  One can feel like their options are gone.  And one needs a cosigner for a residence in New York if you’re making under $60,000.


Aside from pointing out practical information, participants talked about communications.  Foremost was the importance of acknowledging people. One person mentioned the tears in the eye of a haggard woman on the streets when she simply greeted her. It was also mentioned that everyone in a neighborhood may be aware of a homeless person but “nobody knows my name.”   That dissociation causes one to feel undignified.

Welcoming the stranger was evident in the story of a woman, who had previously been homeless, in addressing the needs of a homeless man whom her son brought home.  And again in another story of a woman who says she doesn’t mind the smell of some homeless persons–it’s all about recognizing their humanity and ensuring street women receive welcome and nourishment from others at a local program.  Communications begins with warm welcome, an invitation, accepting people where they are, and meeting basic needs. It was also noted it can be difficult for women to find a place to shower. (It was with interest that I saw on a Grand Central Station bathroom sign that bathing is not allowed…).


A new social worker asked for advice related to her future meetings with persons experiencing homelessness.  Perhaps the most distilled advice was “just be human.” The question resulted in a meaningful sharing.

Participants mentioned the importance of understanding dynamics of the culture in which she is working.  She must be trauma informed.  And empathetic. One said a degree in psychiatry was needed.   It was acknowledged that social workers are not paid sufficiently.

The social worker was advised to be empathetic, but truth-telling, in situations where programs cannot meet peoples’ immediate needs.  (i.e. finding permanent residences). Participants also said that things are not always solutions-based.

“My dignity is your dignity and your dignity is my dignity.”


You’ve got to have a connection with the homeless person first before discussion goes deeper, it was pointed out. She was also told that there are no communications without trust. The question arose as to how a social worker builds trust if she has only ten minutes with a client.

The notion of time and trust go together, it was mentioned, implying one needs to spend time in conversations with others in order to build trust.  “My dignity is your dignity and your dignity is my dignity,” a participant said.  Building trust only happens if you don’t feel you owe anything to the person and they don’t owe anything to you, but you both are sharing humanity.

A participant also said candidly that socioeconomic status plays a role in how homeless persons are treated. People in desperate situations must jump through more and more bureaucratic “hoops.”    Programs also change regularly and language used within them changes.  So a social worker needs to be up to speed on such changes.


When a participant mentioned knowing how to cash a check if one does not have an address, the group said that, if pooled into a booklet, such information could be very helpful.

Needless to say, there was incredible wisdom among this group!  A meal which followed the dialogue offered a chance to interact with the group, which truly felt like family.


Throughout Peoples’ University, I kept hearing echoed in my head, “in the face of persons living in poverty, we see the face of God.”  All the comments heard related to honoring that dignity and humanity in others.

Let’s hope global efforts by our Vincentian Family and our United Nations  NGO Committee to End Homelessness enable so many more people to “wake well rested, make their coffee and breakfast, and get ready to enter the world in a visible way,” as the late Nikole Terzakos dreamed.