When Owen Sallee pictures what it means to help the homeless community, he envisions “people serving meals, going through lines to feed the [homeless].”
Sallee spoke about this vision to roughly 20 students last Wednesday in the breakout Day of Common Learning lecture “Helping, Power and Tent City 3.” Sallee said that though some describe these interactions as fleeting, impersonal or a one-time occurance, he believes that does not make them negative.
“It’s hospitable…blessed or a blessing to help those in need,” Sallee said.
Coordinator for Global and Urban Involvement at Seattle Pacific, Sallee shared his passion and knowledge of the homeless community and the organized encampment Tent City 3 (TC3).
TC3, a self-managed encampment of about 100 homeless individuals, will be on the SPU campus Jan. 10-March 7, 2015.
“There’s a really good opportunity for people to learn…broadly about the issue of homelessness,” Sallee said.
During his breakout session, Sallee identified a power dynamic to homelessness that most people do not think about.
“If you were to walk through a line and I was to give you a bowl, where is the power in this relationship?” Sallee said. “With me, because I have the bowl.”
There is not much choice when it comes to this kind of relationship where distance is a factor, Sallee told audience members. He acknowledged that those serving the food like to have a table or “safety barrier” in between themselves and the homeless. He also encouraged discussion on how this could be changed.
Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Margaret Brown also spoke at the breakout session.
“There’s usually a power dynamic that goes along with a helping behavior,” Brown said.
According to her, all individuals are a part of different cultures where they grow up with their way of doing things that is labeled “the right way.” In distinguishing this concept, Brown told audience members about her first visit to a neighbor’s house.
“It was just disturbing to me to be exposed to some world that was different from my world,” Brown said. “I thought that’s bad, that’s wrong, they’re doing it wrong.”
According to Brown, helping behavior can be used to maintain status hierarchies rather than change the status quo.
“There’s group status in every culture. There’s higher status groups and lower status groups,” Brown said. “Sometimes we like to pretend like that’s not true, but social status is a fact of life.”
Brown went on to say that individuals are all members of groups, even if they are not with the group at the time.
“When people think about homeless [groups] they often think about character flaws…They’re lazy or they’re mentally ill…something that seems more permanent.”
Brown encouraged the audience to be open to the idea that this is not the case.
Sophomore Amanda Ning was very interested by what Sallee and Brown had to say.
“When you think about [homelessness], you don’t think, ‘oh I have more power than you,’” Ning said. “It’s an interesting power dynamic.”
While the forum encouraged discussion and learning opportunities, sophomore Ellen Ruby felt more discussion on emotionally helping others was needed.
“There’s so much of that in homelessness but I think it’s so cool [TC3 is] coming to SPU,” Ruby said.
“They can’t drink, can’t do drugs and have to commit to certain chores…They call them community service opportunities,” Sallee said. “There will be plenty of great opportunities for relationships and learning” during that time.
Sallee went on to say students need to make relationship-building a two-way street and question power dynamics.
“We’re defined by our stuff and they’re defined by their lack of stuff,” he said. “I think it would be easy to identify Tent City’s needs…clothing, a place to stay, but it only goes one way. That’s not sharing, that’s giving or charity or dumping.”
“We need to think about what we actually have to learn,” Sallee said.