I have many problems with Kelly Caggiano’s article “Give More to USA, Not Just Haitians,” in your most recent issue. The core argument of this Op-Ed, that,
“The University Focuses on Crises Abroad, but Students and Staff Could do more to Help People Within America’s Borders” is based on several false premises – a) that a natural disaster [“crises abroad”] and an economic recession [within America’s border’s”] stand on a equal plane of comparison, b) that Americans cannot also be Haitians and that c) the involved Fordham students on campus have not been helping “their fellow Americans.”
After listing the 10 fundraising events for Haiti she’s seen on campus, Caggiano remarks “Americans have been sending money to Haiti for almost two months now,” before she reminds us that there is a recession, here, in America, and then provides statistics from 2008 to prove the existence of homelessness. By implying “two months” is a sufficient, let alone gratuitous window of time for giving aid to an already impoverished country wrecked by a monolithic natural disaster (the still-pending death toll has surpassed 300,000 people) Caggiano not only ignores the fact that Haiti has needed aid for a lot longer than two months, but also supports the flawed view that donating to causes are but mere “fads,” (her own words) presupposing that the causes we open our wallets for exist to reflect our individual character, and that the worth we place on these causes therefore have time limits and can become socially unacceptable.
In addition to promoting this flawed ideology, Caggiano also ignores the specifics – the situation in Haiti has not expired, but rather, will need tremendous relief effort for years, even decades. My father, whose organization has been working in Haiti for 20 years now, recently showed me their plan for relief effort, a temporary plan which focuses on a miniscule population of Haitians in comparison to the need of the entire nation, and the fluctuating price-tag at the bottom was 3 million dollars. Regardless of whether or not the figures match up, though, comparing a natural disaster to an economic recession does not make sense. By using one, the natural disaster, to argue for more need to donate to the other, alleviating homelessness caused by the recession, Caggiano presupposes, again, that they can be equally compared. There is nothing political about an earthquake uprooting the lives of 300,000 people – there is no other reaction appropriate to recognizing this need than seeing the need to help.
But it seems that Caggiano’s agenda brings up the crises of identity. “If people can find the means to donate money to Haiti in this economy, why can’t they help their fellow Americans?” she asks. There are many problems within this question that make it unanswerable. First, by using the term “fellow Americans.” Caggiano disregards the fact that many Haitians are in fact Americans, New York being the number two state in the country below Florida for highest percentage of foreign-born Haitians. By citing some invisible bond we have between all Americans, inferring that foreign aid to Haiti is inherently foreign, faceless, and not connected is offensive to both Haitian-Americans and their families, and those “Americans” who see the need to donate and who also help within their local communities.
Since this article switches back and forth between speaking for “fellow Americans,” and “Fordham students,” let us assume for clarity that the rest of my response concerns Fordham students. Before Caggiano poses another question, “Why can’t the student body work together to donate more money to help fix our problems at home?” she mentions that “Fordham students have no problem helping others, as demonstrated by the various GO! projects and other opportunities to volunteer on campus.” I’m confused as to what this is suggesting. If by bringing up GO! projects as an example of students only focusing on international efforts, she doesn’t mention GO! NYC (which I participated in), GO! Waynesburg, GO! Nashville, GO! Adirondacks, GO! Navajo, GO! Alaska, GO! San Diego, GO! New Orleans, and all of the domestic projects offered nor does she delve more deeply into the “other opportunities to volunteer on campus,” like those available through the Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice (DDCSJ), an office which partners with countless organizations in the Bronx where many Fordham students volunteer regularly. Even the fact that “donating money,” seems to be the main example of “helping others,” is another example of the flawed view of service she promotes. One of the fundamental teachings that GO! and DDCSJ operate on is that “donating money,” an example of direct service, or “charity,” is part of a bigger, more valuable whole of “helping others,” which involves learning the structural injustices that cause those situations which require us to donate money in the first place. I think this is where it becomes clear why there are more tables for Haiti than for homelessness – in the case of Haiti, there is little else we can do except fundraise whereas in the case of homelessness “in our own neighborhood” (her words) there are programs, here at Fordham, we can get involved with that do a lot more than donate money/ That is, why, there does not exist “a booth where we can donate our flex dollars for homelessness.”
In furthering her argument, that the “fad” of donating to Haiti needs to end so that we set up more fundraising booths for homelessness, Caggiano points out that “All you have to do is walk off campus to see poverty and homelessness in our neighborhood.” While this is true to an extent, Caggiano never reconciles this image of “our neighborhood,” within the actual picture of statistics she listed, which are from 2008 and concern the entire country of the United Sates. Through Fordham’s own DDCSJ, I participated this year in The HOPE Count, an annual street survey of homeless people in New York City put on by the NYC Department of Homeless Services and learned that since 2005 there are 2,067 fewer New Yorkers living unsheltered in public spaces, and that, to talk about “our own neighborhood,” homelessness in the Bronx has gone down 72% since 2005, the highest rate of all 5 boroughs. Again, putting homelessness on the same level of emergency importance as an earthquake does not match up, even in figures.
I’m not even sure, after reading the last lines of the article, what Caggiano proposes we as Fordham students should do? “It is good that we collect money to help people in Haiti, but it is sad that we, as a country, seem to rally together much more effectively when another country needs our help; but when Americans are in need of help, we tend to fall short,” she concludes. If it is good to collect money to help people in Haiti, how does this have to do with how “sad it is that we, as a country, seem to rally together more effectively when another country needs our help?” Should we scrap all fundraising efforts, tell all of the Haitian students on campus they’re not American, set up some tables outside the caf with signs that read “Flex Dollars for Homelessness,” and make sure everyone swipes? Those sound like great ideas, when do we start? It seems urgent.