In an emerging trend, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), a longtime advocate on Capitol Hill for issues like poverty and hunger, is the latest lawmaker to leave the comforts of his home and spend a night in a homeless shelter to better understand what it’s like to live at the margins of society.
Last month, the nine-term Massachusetts congressman headed over to Worcester’s Interfaith Hospitality Network, a shelter in his district that houses up to six homeless families at a time, to spend the night. He slept on a couch to ensure that no one in need would go without a bed, but spent much of the evening chatting with guests.
He recounted to ThinkProgress the story of a single mother who lived in the shelter with her son. They had been in the shelter a while, giving her son, who has a learning disability, time to adjust to the local school and get comfortable with teachers there. However, when Massachusetts housing officials told the woman that they had found the two a place to live, but it would require them to move two hours away to New Bedford, she was stuck. She didn’t want to stay in the shelter, but she also didn’t want to pull her son out of the good situation he’d found in school and put him through the trauma of moving to a new school. She decided to stay in the shelter.
“These are incredible people who love their kids like I love my kids, who desperately want to get out of this situation that they find themselves in,” McGovern said. Repeatedly noting how impressed he was by the “doggedness” of people he met in the shelter, he argued we “ought to be praising these people, and instead we belittle their struggle here in Washington.”
Indeed, a common refrain from Republicans on Capitol Hill is that poor people have crafted a “culture of dependency” at best, or at worst are simply too lazy to work, as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently argued.
“That’s not what I saw,” McGovern said. Most of the people he encountered in the shelter worked, but they were stuck in minimum wage jobs with little hope of making enough to afford rent in Worcester. “People would say, ‘I’m doing everything you tell me to do, I’m out there working, yet I’m still stuck in poverty. I can’t get out of the shelter,'” the congressman recounted.
In fact, contrary to conservative beliefs about poor people not wanting to work, McGovern met people who kept working even though doing so meant sacrificing some safety net benefits. “They want to be able to provide for kids and put food on the table,” he said. After all, the alternative, he noted, is to sit around and stare at the ceiling.
Massachusetts may be one of the richest states in the nation, but that doesn’t mean its immune from the horrors of homelessness. Last year, budget cuts led to a record number of homeless children in the Bay State. The overall uptick in homelessness has led to overcrowding in shelters and forced the states to send thousands of families to motels instead.
Asked what he took away from the experience, McGovern thought for a second, then replied, “What was transforming for me was I came away with not pity for these people, but great admiration for their courage.”
McGovern is the third member of Congress recently to spend an extended period of time with homeless people. In December, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) spent a vacation day shadowing a homeless man as he went about his day, and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) spent the night in a shelter in February. Speier has since started a campaign calling on her colleagues to learn more firsthand about homelessness.
McGovern credited the two with helping push him to stay the night at a shelter and argued that more of his colleagues ought to do the same. “This is how you get to know your constituents,” he said. “This is how you get to know what it’s like to be poor. When we talk about food stamps or housing benefits, when we having hearings up here, poor people are never invited. If members of Congress spent the night in the shelter, they would never cut food stamps.”