Faced with the daunting task of shoveling 14 inches of snow after a storm last winter, Joe and his housemates were approached by a man named Willie. Willie offered to shovel the sidewalk in front of their house on Linden Road so they wouldn’t get a ticket. Joe was a little short on cash, but to return the favor, Joe made Willie a turkey sandwich and some soup, which he gladly accepted. When the next storm came around, Willie shoveled Joe’s sidewalk without asking for a thing.
[willie]Willie is one of 40,000 homeless people who live in Michigan and one of hundreds, maybe even thousands, in the East Lansing area alone. He wakes up each day at 6 a.m. to gather cans and provide offers to clean yards, rake leaves and shovel sidewalks for hundreds of homes, said marketing senior Joe Porritt. Many of these homes belong to students who attend MSU, so many students have met Willie, as well as other homeless people in the area.
However, the stereotypes that surround the homeless are difficult to overcome. They are often thought of as lazy burdens on society and initiators of local crime. Many also think the homeless are living on the streets because they deserve it, as if they aren’t trying to get out of their bad situation.
So it’s understandable even Porritt was a little skeptical at first of Willie’s intentions. “It’s in those stories you hear, how you shouldn’t trust the homeless because you never know if they’re desperate and willing to lie and steal from you. But Willie proved to be one of the most respected people in our community,” he said. “And he works hard every day to earn the respect of the student community.”
Of course, there may be those few homeless people who refuse to work and merely bum around all day, living off the government, but I can safely say they don’t make up the majority of those who live around campus.
And what about those left homeless on account of the hurricanes? They’re not homeless because they slack off. Natural disasters like hurricanes forces homelessness in a different light. “It makes me realize that that sort of thing could happen to almost anyone. And so when I look at Willie, it makes me realize that there is always hope to make the best of a not-so-easy situation,” said Porritt.
The homeless population around MSU is often seen around campus collecting cans and bottles, especially after tailgating and other drinking-favorable events. [cans2] “I’m a teaching assistant in Wells Hall and sometimes I notice this one guy coming into the classroom and looking for cans and bottles,” said chemistry senior Lindsay Willett. “I feel sorry for him and I feel the MSU community could do more for him.”
As an open campus, MSU could do a lot more to help the homeless population. The Union is often a hotspot. “We’re a public building in East Lansing and as long as a person is an upstanding citizen, that is they follow all university regulations, they are welcome,” said James Sheppard, Union director. But offering a place to sit until 2 a.m. isn’t really enough when MSU has thousands of students, millions of dollars in resources and at least a few people who are willing to lend a helping hand.
Many students have already done what they can in their own way. Porritt created a group on the ever-popular Facebook: “Willie the Can Man’s Fan Club.” “It only took me 15 minutes to create the group. The group has now exploded into a 400-person forum of people who have all met Willie and have the opportunity to share their experience with each other,” he said. The forum has also sprung a movement to help Willie make some money by selling Willie the Can Man T-shirts imprinted with his famous quote, “Don’t be silly. Give your cans to Willie.”
Other students volunteer at homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the Lansing area, but kinesiology junior Kendrick Bell wants MSU to respond to an even higher calling. “With all the assets MSU has, I think it would be a good idea to create a shelter for the homeless right near campus and get students to volunteer at it.”
Meeting and getting to know the homeless is often thought of as a scary, sometimes dangerous situation, but political science pre-law senior Anthony Servitto, who has also met Willie, said getting to know the “can man” is a mutually beneficial relationship.
Servitto and his friends help Willie out when they can and sometimes Willie will buy them something in return. “He’s an entertaining guy, a great storyteller, but a guy’s got to do what he has to do to survive,” Servitto said. “And all you have to do is give a little time. Willie doesn’t ask for much, just a few cans.”
[house2]But I was thinking, L.A., since you’re not living in the Cowles House, the official president’s residence, why not open up that house to the homeless? It’s a building sitting right on campus, beautifully maintained but usually vacant. Especially with long, cold winter nights coming our way, why not give those who really need a place to stay the chance to use a major resource right on campus? It may not seem like much but one night of warmth may be all somebody really needs.
Willie is only one of three million homeless people in the United States who need help. And why shouldn’t we, a huge campus made up of people who already have everything we need, do something to help those who need us?
Supporting D. Homeless