"The revolution has to happen ... we have to shake up the system," said Ron Casanova, executive director of the New York City Poor Peoples' Economic Human Rights Campaign, referring to how social issues such as homelessness and poverty can be actively campaigned against and eventually eliminated on a national scale.
Casanova came to speak at Goldwin Smith Hall last night as a part of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, and for much of his lecture he discussed ways in which students could get involved in grassroots organizations in the area in the fight against poverty and homelessness.
He insisted that regardless of skin color, social background or other factors, "if your heart is in the right place, then the people around you will learn that you can make a difference."
At the start of the lecture Casanova gave a brief summary of his autobiography, stating that he is a living example of how the homeless can get out of poverty and can organize themselves to actively fight poverty. Casanova lived in an orphanage from an early age because his mother had died and his father disappeared, leaving eleven siblings behind with him.
After spending a few years in prison for shoplifting and a number of other crimes, Casanova became a homeless alcoholic and heroin addict. When one of his siblings died of heroin overdose, Casanova managed to get help for his addictions and is now a "non-active addict." For over twenty years, Casanova has worked with and advocated for poor and homeless families across the country.
Casanova is no longer homeless, but as he pointed out, it is ironic that his HIV-positive status gave him a home in which to live. He added that certainprograms existed to specifically help homeless people living with HIV.
"[Casanova] emphasizes the demand to take action in order to solve the issues brought on by poverty ... this is a unique opportunity to hear about it where it comes from," said Carrie Ross '06, one of the coordinators of the event.
"Don't give the homeless money ... I know where the money goes," Casanova said, explaining that oftentimes the money went to drugs such as alcohol or crack or heroin. Instead, if on the street the homeless person asks for money, "get a conversation started, find out where the money is going, buy him a meal, or a cup of coffee," he added.
Casanova pointed out the need for a national change to the status quo. "Bush managed to steal the election, again. The Republicans are still here, and they don't care at all ... the Democrats cared at least a little bit ... The Republicans are already canceling the programs that are keeping people alive, like Medicare or Supplemental Security Income."
He added that "republicans are anti-social services" and that people needed to change the way Republicans formulated federal policy. Otherwise, he continued, "the rich will keep getting richer."
In 1996, Casanova published his autobiography called Each One Teach One; Up and Out of Poverty: Memoirs of a Street Activist. He also recently compiled a collection of his own poems, a sample of which he read to the audience last night.
"It is important for him to reach out to different audiences such as students at universities, and we're happy to provide him with this forum," said Justin Hite '05, one of the other coordinators of this event. Casanova was invited to speak by Cornell alumna Lindsey Saunders '04, who worked on the economic human rights campaign after graduating.