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Housing as a Human Right – Engaging with the Issue: An Interview with Megan Smith

This is the third installment of Housing as a Human Right, a BPR interview series on the housing crisis in Rhode Island.

Megan Smith is a social worker who has worked with the homeless community in Rhode Island for seventeen years. She works with House of Hope, doing outreach with adults experiencing street homelessness. She has taught at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work and the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. 

Benjamin Ringel: Can you explain to me what you do? 

Megan Smith: I am an outreach worker with House of Hope. I’ve been doing outreach for almost 17 years, which consists of working with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness: people staying outside, in vehicles, tents, abandoned buildings, boats, bridges, you name it. 

BR: What does your day-to-day work look like? 

MS: I am also a professor at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work. These days, I have two early-morning and two late-night outreach shifts per week, and then I spend two days at the House of Hope. So the day-to-day–even the days that I’m at House of Hope–looks really different. The common thread is that we go to where folks are, so sometimes that’s walking around areas of the city where there are concentrations of folks who are staying outside, and then that also means, especially since Covid-19, visiting a lot of folks who are staying in tent encampments or in vehicles, which tend to be a little further outside of the cities. The common denominator is having really cool conversations with amazing people. We intentionally take a very non-directive approach, so we’re not coming out pushing some certain agenda. We’re there to connect with people, hear from them about what their life is like, and then support them with whatever they want to work on. Sometimes, we’re compiling vital documents for them or other things we can do to assist, but sometimes we’re also just speaking with them about their life.

BR: What’s it like to interact with these people? Especially since most people have never even had a meaningful conversation with someone who is unhoused, what do you think you’ve learned?

MS: What’s carried me through all of my academic and personal trajectories is trying to stay true to what I learned from people who are staying outside. The first thing that I’m constantly struck by is just how incredibly kind, communal, resourceful, and creative folks are for pulling themselves and one another through really impossible circumstances that most folks couldn’t even imagine. That was striking. I’m also struck by just how deeply our so-called systems are failing people and how everything is stacked against them. Having those conversations really grounds me and affirms both what wonderful humans they are and also what a broken society we live in.

BR: What would you say to the sort of basic rhetoric that there are resources out there, but that people who need them just aren’t taking initiative? 

MS: I would, first of all, invite people to do outreach and talk with people who are living it, and really check in with themselves about all of the structural advantages and forms of privilege that we have as housed people. I think there’s nothing that I can say that someone who’s living homelessness can’t see better. I feel like a lot of my job is just putting people in touch with folks who are experiencing homelessness and creating space for those conversations to happen directly without me as the mediator.

BR: What made you so passionate about this work? 

MS: I got involved with HOPE (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere), a student group at Brown, completely serendipitously as a first-year. I accompanied a friend who wanted to go to a HOPE meeting because I didn’t want her to walk alone at night. I found the club to be amazing. One of the first things we did was occupy the Armory, which was the largest shelter at the time and also was at risk of being shut down. So from very early on, I was exposed to working with folks experiencing homelessness, and I really fell in love with the community, being struck by what an incredible group of humans they are, who are completely disregarded and overlooked and villainized by our broader society. 

After getting a degree in Urban Studies with a focus in community organizing, I worked in the field for a few years. I ran an emergency winter shelter and found the social workers around me to be really awesome, which led me to apply for a Masters in Social Work program. Then, I started teaching students about homelessness and decided to get a PhD, but the common thread has always been street outreach work.

BR: How do you think you leverage your advanced degree to make a real community impact? 

MS: I’m not going to stake a claim that I’ve made some real community impact with capital letters at the beginning of my name. As much as I feel like I do valuable work, I try not to ride on any high horse. I stay humble, and my PhD research was directly related to my work in case management. There’s a keen awareness that I used these communities’ data and their testimonies to obtain my advanced degree. In terms of teaching, I talk with my students and try to sensitize them to issues of homelessness and invite them to outreach. We have guest speakers who are people with lived experiences in homelessness. In research, I try to include people who are homeless as co-researchers, not just research subjects. They’re people I’m studying with, not upon. 

I also think a lot about if my research is useful, and how it may be weaponized in a political way or anything like that. I could publish a paper about the way that homeless people and poor people are disproportionately criminalized, but the other camp could use that as proof that people experiencing homelessness are criminals or thugs. 

BR: How has this work changed the way you think about politics? How do the people you work with think about politics? 

MS: It constantly reinforces that there’s something fundamentally wrong in our country, in that we consider housing to be a commodity as opposed to a human right. We have to focus on the issue at this core point, because sometimes it feels like we’re sort of chipping away at the edges rather than addressing the root issue. Folks on the street are very keenly aware that this is not a scarcity issue. People are incredibly aware that they are being structurally discriminated against.

BR: How do you think this speaks to the power of empathy in politics and the importance of centering real-life experiences in these sort-of white, upper-middle class, politically correct debates that are oftentimes so far removed from the real issue?

MS: People look at this issue from 30,000 feet away, in abstract terms. People in political power need to be in direct conversation with folks experiencing homelessness, and not just a one-off at a soup kitchen, but continual relationships. The mechanisms for this process need to be built. 

BR: Lastly, with such an intense job, how do you stay sane, especially as so many political efforts to make change around housing get stalled or struck down? 

MS: I just have to remember that, at the end of the day, I’m not here for the government. I’m doing my work because I love the people with whom I work. I love the people experiencing street homelessness, and I love the conversations I get to have with them. Of course I care about the government because what they do and don’t do affects this community, but in terms of what makes my day-to-day worthwhile, it’s the conversations and the relationships I get to have with the community with whom I work. I separate my work from any grander narrative; I just treasure getting to work with this community. That’s what sustains me.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.