Griffin Kapelus is a student at the University of Vermont who spends some of his extracurricular time helping the homeless and combatting food insecurity in Burlington. He learned at a young age the importance of addressing social issues.
Griffin Kapelus grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and although he was undoubtedly born into fortunate circumstances, his parents did a great job teaching him and his sisters to be aware of their privilege and keep their feet on the ground.
In the fall of 2020, Kapelus began taking classes online at Hunter College, including a geography course on race and ethnicity in the United States that further solidified his interest in academic exploration of important social issues.
He also felt a desire to contribute to solving the issues he was exploring in the classroom.
Rather than just academic study, Griffin decided he wanted to try and make a difference, joining a surprising number of young adults who give their time for others.
According to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, 55% of young people ages 12 to 19 – volunteer each year. The number is nearly double adult volunteerism, with a rate of 29%.
The COVID crisis hit America’s most vulnerable populations particularly hard, as access to adequate health care, vaccinations and the health precautions much of us take for granted are difficult or impossible for the most vulnerable populations.
Even before the pandemic, in January 2020, there were 580,466 people experiencing homelessness in America. Although the majority were individuals (70 percent), nearly one third were people living in families with children.
We recently had the opportunity to hear from Griffin Kapelus to learn a little about community service and some popular misconceptions people have about the homeless and underprivileged.
What advice would you give to others interested in helping the homeless?
I would say that it is important to get your feet wet before diving in, which is what I myself am doing now.
There is a lot of joy I get from doing meaningful work, but the romanticized aspects of social work are more the exception rather than the norm. There are plenty of difficult aspects of doing social work that is not really clear until you actually work with a given community.
Working in a homeless shelter, for example, is often rewarding but it is not a happy-go-lucky environment. I am, at the end of the day, there to help make sure the people who come in have a place to sleep. I see residents who are stuck in a cycle of homelessness, substance abuse, or mental health struggles and they far outnumber those who escape it.
Every shift, I am witnessing people, whose names and stories I know, struggle through life. It is easy to be overwhelmed if you cannot compartmentalize to some degree. There are also certainly times where their frustration is aimed at me, and you need a thick skin to handle these kinds of situations.
I know that somebody at their lowest moment is not a reflection of who they are as a whole, but it is not always an easy thing to accept. Overall, I’d say to just be mentally prepared, because it’s a tough field.
What is the most common misunderstanding people have about the homeless?
People often have the misconception that homelessness is a consistent state, but the reality is that the vast majority of the homeless community is not permanently on the streets. A lot of people find themselves homeless if they lose a job, or if a mental health issue surfaces, or any variety of other things.
People may find a place with cheap rent that only lasts for a month, or maybe escaping an abusive spouse. More often than not, homelessness is a temporary situation, but one that is cyclical, with people lacking shelter and having a place to stay depending on the day, week, or month.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
I am inspired by various athlete activists: Despite the fact that he plays for Manchester City’s chief rival, Manchester United, I thoroughly admire Marcus Rashford.
During the pandemic, he fought for Parliament to give school lunches to children who were not receiving them because they weren’t in school (there’s more to the story and I’m sure it’s quite easy to find an article on it).
At one point, he paid for the food himself when the government was too slow to act. He is also outspoken on the issue of racism in English football.
Rashford could be just an athlete but chooses to use his platform to promote social justice and give back to his city and community, even when it brings criticism.
Beyond that, I am influenced by a litany of random things in life that have a smaller but relevant impact that has changed my thinking on a given subject. Those influences may come from the New York Times, a television show, a book, or the world of music.