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Trying to End Homelessness and Poverty

Rajni Shankar-Brown, PhD, an associate professor at Stetson, gives the keynote address at the Robed in Love fundraiser Oct. 11 to benefit the Neighborhood Center of West Volusia. All photos courtesy of Koontz Photography

Families with children are the fastest growing segment of Central Florida’s homeless population, including 9-year-old Jazz who lives in the woods with her mother in a tarp tent held together with duct tape.

Rajni Shankar-Brown, PhD, Jessie Ball duPont Endowed Chair of Social Justice Education at Stetson, told the story of “Jazz” during her keynote address Oct. 11 at a fundraising breakfast for The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia.

On most days, Jazz “lives with trauma that is unimaginable,” Shankar-Brown told the audience at the Robed in Love event. The young girl doesn’t know where her next meal will come from and “lives with the constant fear, along with her mother, that they will be torn apart.”

“Yet, in Jazz’s story, let me tell you that her mother has been able to access vital resources and has been able to uplift their life in so many ways thanks to our Neighborhood Center,” said Shankar-Brown, an associate professor and executive board member for the National Coalition for the Homeless, as well as Executive Director of the Poverty and Homelessness Conference.

Susan Clark

The event was the second annual Robed in Love fundraiser, where guests wore robes to represent the comfort and security provided by a home, and generously donated robes after the event for individuals in homelessness.

The Neighborhood Center also is the 2019 recipient of Stetson’s $10,000 Greenfeather Grant, which will be presented during Homecoming Weekend on Nov. 8-10. Greenfeather is a longstanding tradition at Stetson, in which student teams compete to raise the most money for charity and win the coveted Greenfeather Trophy.

The Neighborhood Center is the recipient of this year’s $10,000 Greenfeather Grant.

The Neighborhood Center will use the $10,000 grant for a new homeless assistance center, called The Bridge, which will open in spring 2020, with 30 beds and services for the homeless. Now under construction at 421 S. Palmetto Ave., the Bridge is a joint effort among the Neighborhood Center, local governments, churches, businesses and civic groups.

“That is going to help us establish an outdoor laundry facility for those who are going to come in for the feeding, but not come in for residency,” said Neighborhood Center Executive Director Susan Clark. “Folks who are sleeping in tents can wash their clothes … so that outdoor laundry space is going to be very important.”

Shankar-Brown said the Neighborhood Center is a bright light in the community, providing desperately needed services at a time when poverty and homelessness are increasing in Central Florida and statewide. She also described the Neighborhood Center as being “a powerful example of equity in action and a beautiful demonstration of community collaboration.”

“We call ourselves the Sunshine State, but for many there is not a lot of sunshine,” she said. “For many, it is a daily struggle trying to survive and trying to get basic human needs met. When we start to talk about human needs, in order for us to function and thrive, we need shelter. We need food. These are fundamental human rights and yet so many do not have them.” 

Professor Shankar-Brown speaks on stage.
Rajni Shankar-Brown gives the keynote address in the city’s Sanborn Activity Center.

“We must work together. We must weave compassion into action, and vigorously address poverty and homelessness,” urged Shankar-Brown.

In the past year, the Neighborhood Center provided homeless prevention services to 8,700 households in West Volusia and provided more than 210,000 meals to people in need through its food pantry, agency statistics show. 

“It’s very much the heart and pulse of our community,” Shankar-Brown said. “Every day, they are reaching out and serving those in need and not only are they serving, but they are actively working to prevent and to try to end homelessness and hunger in West Volusia and beyond.

“This is not easy work, it’s messy. It is complex. It is exhausting, both emotionally and physically, and yet it is work that is more critical and needed than ever before,” she said.

Shankar-Brown’s son, Valen Siddhartha, 15, won the annual T-shirt design contest.

Also at the event, Shankar-Brown’s son, Valen Siddhartha, was named the winner of the center’s annual T-shirt design contest. Featuring interlocking red and black hands, shaped into a heart, Valen told the audience that the design shows “when we unite, we can make anything happen.”

He said the design was inspired by his grandmother who, when she first arrived here from India, was homeless, along with his grandfather, while he attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. He had received a scholarship to study mechanical engineering but did not learn until he arrived that it did not cover room and board.

“I grew up in a safe environment with my mom and dad, of course, and my family, but I know that her parents, my grandparents, came here to this country with nothing,” said Valen, 15, a sophomore at DeLand High School in the Engineering Academy and a passionate multimedia artist.

Valen’s winning design for the T-shirt was unveiled at the breakfast. The T-shirts can be purchased at the Neighborhood Center’s Thrift Shoppe, 434 S. Woodland Ave., with proceeds directly benefiting the nonprofit.

“My grandparents literally lived in a cardboard box for a few months trying to get on their feet,” he continued. “And that really inspired me to use my creativity to design the shirt and express my feelings about it. While I personally haven’t experienced homelessness before, just seeing the pain in my grandma’s eyes when she talks about it, it just really gets to me. Everyone deserves a safe place to sleep. No one should suffer from hunger.” 

The proceeds from Valen’s T-shirt design will directly benefit the Neighborhood Center and may be purchased in their Thrift Shoppe located at 434 S. Woodland Ave. 

Shankar-Brown ended her keynote with tears in her eyes. “Thanks to each of you for supporting the Neighborhood Center and for investing in our community, and in each other,” she said. “We must never forget that we are all connected. Let us weave compassion into action, and build a better community and world.” The audience, clearly moved and inspired by Shankar-Brown’s keynote address, enthusiastically applauded.