This past week was arguably one of the worst of this winter so far. It seemed like the sky gods had an infinite amount of snow to throw down at us, the air was so cold it sometimes hurt to breathe, and it probably would have been more effective to ice skate to class rather than walk. However, there was still a small group of people outside. They were bearing the cold and snow to interact with passersby and bring awareness to an issue that is rarely spoken of in Ann Arbor: homelessness.
The International Network of Street Papers organizes an annual “Vendor Appreciation Week,” which took place from Feb. 3 to Feb. 7 this year. Street papers are newspapers that are sold by individuals who identify as homeless to benefit that same community. These papers are active around the country, and even outside the United States. INSP reaches out each year to all of its affiliates to participate in this week of activities, which includes Groundcover News, the local street paper in Ann Arbor.
In April 2010, Groundcover News founder Susan Beckett started the paper after seeing a successful street paper in Seattle. She recognized the need for a similar organization in Ann Arbor, and started the incredibly successful group. Groundcover News provides a transition for those who are homeless or in low-income situations by creating a community to help one move from a less secure lifestyle to providing for oneself and finding a permanent job. Currently, Groundcover News has about 23 active vendors and more than 170 registered and trained.
There were many Michigan students who chose to shadow vendors, including Michigan basketball player Jordan Morgan. The newly founded Groundcover News student group also had some of its members participate. Nursing junior Jenny Crorey started the group this past fall as a way to get students involved in a local nonprofit where they can truly make a difference.
Another member of the group, LSA junior Ian Mark, felt that the experience was incredibly beneficial because it allowed him to step into the shoes of a vendor and experience what they go through on a daily basis. “It made me stop and think about what it would be like if that was my only source of income, especially since a lot of times you might only get a few bucks an hour,” he said. Ideally we would be compassionate about this all the time, but Mark said “it’s easy for students to forget about the desperate struggles of low-income and homeless populations in the city,” Mark said. “Groundcover is essential because it gives low-income individuals a voice they might not otherwise have. Additionally, it empowers these individuals by providing them with valuable opportunities to break out of the brutal cycle of poverty.”
As students at the University, we have a certain responsibility to remain attentive to issues that affect our local community. There may be a barrier or separation between students and the “Ann Arborites,” but it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth knowing that the non-student population often considers us self-centered or uppity. We certainly have a responsibility to do well in our classes and remain attentive to our extra-curricular activities, but it is just as important to understand the broader Ann Arbor community in which we reside.
It’s understandable that each individual will care more about certain issues, but as a resident of an area, I think it is a fair expectation that we should at least be knowledgeable of the issues that influence our neighbors. Without this basic understanding, we can allow ourselves to fall into traps like believing that we are “helping” the homeless, or doing them a favor. We are all simply sharing our perspectives and stories with each other, to create a larger community for us all.
Harleen Kaur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.