“Poverty destroys social capital. It destroys the possibility of people to do their best.” With that, James Phillips, Ph.D., lead off a discussion on poverty and homelessness sponsored by the United Nations Club at Southern Oregon University on Feb. 23.

The Anthropology professor told a crowd of roughly 50 in the River Room at the Stevenson Union that poverty operates within a paradox wherever it exists. “Poverty goes hand-in-hand with extreme wealth. The countries with the greatest numbers of resources and great wealth have the highest poverty.” He explained, “The way we develop has to do with extracting resources from the earth. Industry takes resources out of the country. People get displaced.

“Ending poverty is not an issue of charity and resources. It’s a political problem.” Phillips urged the group to view poverty and homelessness through the lens of politics rather than pushing the issue off on to individuals who may be suffering.

The professor said the real issues to be addressed must be considered at a bigger level, such as political and resource issues. However, he did suggest personal ideology plays a role. “If we can see we’re the same, that’s the beginning of where to start. It’s all one big attitude. How we treat our environment is how we treat each other.”

Phillips was joined by a panel of student leaders who have started a group to address homelessness and hunger and by Vanessa Martynse Houk, who heads the Friday Community Peace Meal at Pioneer Hall.

Student leader and economics major Alexander Fitzhugh told those in attendance it’s important to get involved politically through testimony, hand-written letters, telegrams and personal contact with the City Council. “Sleep is a biological necessity," he said. "Without it you have severe impacts such as irrational thought and irritation. It pushes people further into the cycle of homelessness.”

Fitzhugh urged citizens to work on ending the sleeping and camping ban in Ashland which creates a system of citations for people with no home who have no legal place to sleep. It is against the city ordinance to sleep in a car, tent, park or any public space in Ashland. He ended his remarks by urging a change in ordinances, saying “Lift the sleeping ban.”

Houk recalled seeing one homeless man in town 28 years ago, often at the same location. “Coming here tonight, I saw eight to 10," she said. "Why has the number increased so much? We’ve lost community. We need to build community to bridge between the haves and have-nots.”

Members of the audience spoke, including a man who identified himself as Sage, who said he lives outside and hopes to find space to create a community food garden. “I see the no-trespassing signs," he said. "We need more 'yes' signs. Create what we want, not what we don’t want.” He spoke about those who fear the "unhoused," saying, “I would encourage you to come find us and have a conversation.”

The assembled then broke into groups to discuss possible ground-up solutions to poverty and homelessness, as well as building community.

When the event ended, Sage said he was hopeful he had now found a place to grow food, student panelist and banking industry professional Ron Gordon offered to help low-income families prepare working budgets at no charge, and several members exchanged personal information to continue a process of community involvement.

Phillips, the SOU professor, summed it up this way: “Poverty is a place of insecurity and dependency. How do we help people out of dependency? It destroys the human spirit. I think this is a moral question. Why so much poverty next to wealth?”

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.