This is a very special week in Bloomington, Indiana, for more than one reason.
A college town with about 80,000 residents, Bloomington’s campus celebrates one week every year as “Little 5 Week,” celebrating the annual Little 500 bicycle race and surrounding events. It is a time of drunken celebration, spring energy, indulgence, and the occasional bad behavior.
A Southern Indiana town with about 80,000 residents, Bloomington is home, on any given night, to about 300 people experiencing homelessness. This week, following the annual closure of the Interfaith Winter Shelter, many of these people found themselves with no place to go Tuesday night, seeking out various makeshift shelters amidst the season’s heavy thunderstorms. It is a time of sobering struggle, seasonal transition, harsh realities, and the occasional glimpse of hope.
On Thursday evening, due to potentially severe weather in the forecast, Bloomington’s First United Methodist Church graciously opened their doors on a very-limited emergency basis, to house people in need for three nights. I was privileged to volunteer at this emergency shelter for a few hours. During my time there, I heard stories from a diverse group of people. Most were soaking wet and tired. Many had blistered and hurting feet from days out in the rain. A few people were experiencing substance abuse or mental health issues. By and large, all the people I talked to shared one common expression: they were grateful. “Thank you guys for doing this,” I heard over and over. “I’m so glad to be here.”
On Friday morning, in my warm bed at home reading Facebook, I encountered a news article that was quite jarring. “Indiana Sorority Girls Attend Totally Cute Homeless-Themed Party” told the tale of IU’s Kappa Delta, who dressed up with fake dirt smudges and cardboard signs as what appears to be part of Little 5 Week celebrations. Somehow, mocking people who do not have a home is, for these young women, entertaining and celebratory.
What strikes me about this story is this: I suspect that the women of Kappa Delta are experiencing a profound lack of gratitude. In a week largely focused upon consumption and indulgence, I suppose it is easy to forget their neighbors’ plight. That while they sleep on beds in a large sorority house, someone less than a mile away is sleeping under a bush for lack of somewhere better to go. That while they post party pictures making fun of exaggerated filth on the internet, a neighbor is filthy because they’ve had to walk around in rain and mud all day looking for a place to pitch a tent without getting arrested. That while they drink a beverage of choice to excess and have fun, many in their same town drink to the point of endangerment because Bloomington lacks the facilities to help them sober up. That while celebrating Little 5 downtown in matching outfits, they will walk right past humans who are struggling to meet basic daily needs for food, clothing, or shelter. The juxtaposition of these two stories, in the same town, in the same highly-charged week, speaks a profoundly sad story, of need and of unnecessary insult, of gratitude and inconsideration.
I would like to offer a challenge to the women of Kappa Delta, and beyond that to all of IU’s students and all of Bloomington’s residents. While negative attention focuses on the unfortunate theme party that happened here in your home and in the town we all share, my challenge to you is to reclaim that attention for good. The plight of Bloomington’s homeless is in a time of serious crisis. Kappa Delta, your sorority proclaims a mission of “community service, active leadership and responsible citizenship.” This would be an excellent opportunity to step into those values in a way that is highly relevant and extremely important. In the spirit of philanthropy, how can Kappa Delta and IU’s Greek community not only eliminate sad tales like this one, but work to build new stories of compassion? How can IU students and Bloomington residents come together not only in sharing our common celebrations, like Little 5, but also in sharing our common responsibility to give care to each other as members of the same community?
One way I’d suggest for folks to help is by supporting the urgent formation of a longer-term emergency shelter for this summer. A group of students and community members is already working together on a project called the Ubuntu Shelter, which has spearheaded the emergency shelters for these few days of bad weather, and which is ready to operate a fully-functional summer shelter as soon as they can find adequate resources, most especially a space.What can you do? Spread the word. Check out https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ubuntu-Shelter/554931191204922?fref=ts. Talk to people about this problem, and about sharing resources to find a solution.
Another thing I’d suggest is to combat the dehumanization of people that has been so unfortunately displayed at Kappa Delta. As stated in the Kappa Delta Creed, “May We each day through love of those within our circle, Learn to know and understand better those without our circle.” For some, it’s time to stop thinking of homeless people as Others and start thinking of them as People. For some, it’s time to stop thinking of sorority members as Others and start thinking of them as People. Talk to a person on the street. Volunteer at a shelter or at the Shalom Center. Have a new friend over for dinner. Be open-minded. Extend kindness. Act with empathy.
In a week like this, Bloomington is teeming with energy. Instead of spreading classism and hate, why don’t we use that energy for good?