Wilma Smith spoke eloquently about her struggle with homelessness in front of a packed room of Nichols College business students in Davis Hall on December 8th. As part of a “Voices of Homelessness” developed by the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, she recalled the first time she slept on concrete sheets: “I had to make a tough decision to leave a shelter in the old city morgue in Providence because several women had threatened to steal my belongings when I went to sleep.”
Although she was not yet ready to live successfully as an adult at just 18 years of age, Smith had been forced to leave the foster care system. According to the Child Welfare League of America, of the approximately 30,000 foster care teens “emancipated” yearly, 50 percent have not graduated from high school. Most will face homelessness and joblessness.
Nichols senior Nasha Pierre arranged to have the speakers visit the Dudley campus as an extension to the Nichols Reads Program. “It's a great extension to Nichols Read’s fall event when author Adam Shepard talk about his homeless experience and his book Scratch Beginnings,” says Pierre. “I wanted Nichols student to get another insider’s perspective.”
There are many faces to homelessness and the second speaker, Carlton Freese, had a decidedly different story from Smith’s. A native Rhode Islander, Freese had studied music at the University of Rhode Island, performed with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and traveled to over 80 cities. Health issues, including a bout with cancer and a heart transplant, made it impossible for him to hold down a job.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, Massachusetts ranks 11th in the number of homeless, which represent 23 percent of the state’s population, for a total number of 15,482 men, women and children. Hate crimes and violence against the homeless rose sharply in 2008 and there’s a record shortage of homeless beds.
It was, therefore, fitting that at the end of the program, intern at the RI Coalition for the Homeless, Doris Norman, asked Nichols students to stand and recite the Coalition’s mission statement: “We will change the beliefs of homelessness. We will break stereotypes and misconceptions. We will educate the general public to gain support. We will put a face to the individuals suffering, and we will speak the truth to end homelessness.”