Media agency owner encourages UMass to care about homelessness

'Don’t think that you don’t have the power, you do.'

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Media agency owner encourages UMass to care about homelessness

(Parker Peters/ Daily Collegian)

(Parker Peters/ Daily Collegian)

(Parker Peters/ Daily Collegian)

(Parker Peters/ Daily Collegian)

By John Buday, Collegian Staff

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In a talk at the University of Massachusetts on Thursday, Michelle Cardinal, CEO of the privately-owned creative media agency R2C Group, recalled walking down Broadway in the rain and passing an emaciated woman in the middle of a mental breakdown: a neighbor.

“I’ll be honest, I did not stop and give her my coat,” Cardinal said, addressing an audience in the Communications Hub of the Integrative Learning Center. “I was looking at her and I was feeling hopeless and feeling ashamed, and I recognized her: she’s a homeless woman that lives on the streets near my house.”

After more than 25 years working in television sales, advertising and media, Cardinal decided to fight against chronic homelessness in her hometown of Portland, Oregon and beyond.

A UMass alum with a degree in communications, Cardinal returned to talk about her realization of the homelessness problem and her expectations for UMass students to keep up with public policy changes affecting the homeless.

“I think that with the election coming, I want to inspire you to pay attention,” Cardinal said. “Pay attention to the public policy decisions that are being made, pay attention to all of these things –don’t think that you don’t have the power, you do.”

According to Cardinal, Oregon has 156,000 people at risk of homelessness at any given time due to a lack of savings and sustainable income. Nationally, the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development published last year that over half a million people are homeless on a given night.

In Massachusetts, that number is 20,000 homeless per night: 29 homeless individuals per every 10,000 people — a 14 percent increase from 2017 to 2018 — compared to the national average of 17 per every 10,000. Boston, meanwhile, has a ratio of 91 to 10,000, with 6,000 people on the streets per day.

Cardinal named four main factors facilitating homelessness: disabilities, mental illnesses, addiction and a lack of low-income housing.

“I’ve thought about this, and I think we can all relate to this” Cardinal said. “I would venture to guess not one person in this room hasn’t been touched by a mental illness or drug addiction in some way: a mother, a brother, an aunt, an uncle, a brother-in-law, I don’t know.”

Cardinal credited her mother with obtaining the treatment needed for her twin sister, who has extreme deafness and suffers from mental illness.

“That woman on the street could be my sister,” she said, circling back to the woman in the rain. “I needed to do more. I can’t just walk by these people and be angry and be selfish.”

She has responded by donating to charities working to help the homeless and educating her R2C employees on the true factors of homelessness. That includes urging compassion rather than a stigma of people on the street being lazy or deserving of their poor state.

Cardinal also sits on the board of the Central City Concern, a nonprofit organization geared toward putting an end to homelessness through housing services, mental health and addiction aid and more across four separate states. The Oregon-specific organization has been around for 40 years and is the state’s largest homeless nonprofit.

After speaking, Cardinal answered questions from several students in the audience, many referencing the financial burdens of college students.

Senior Sarah Kahler, a communication disorders major whose mother went to high school with Cardinal, said she has encountered indicators of mental illness and homelessness on campus.

“Another thing I’ve been looking into is the LGBTQIA+ community,” Kahler said. “So many kids are being kicked out of their own homes and living on the streets and developing more mental disorders because of those experiences, and it’s just so sad and heartbreaking to see.”

UMass anthropology sophomore Tracy’Lee Boutilier also spoke of her advocacy work with marginalized homeless communities, namely communities of color, and about wanting to bring their voices forward.

“They don’t have representation, or they don’t feel that they have representation,” Boutilier said. “One side is coming from policy and well, ‘we need to make changes because we have to save money.’ The voice that I was trying to bring is, depending on how you’re making these cuts, this is what it lands on the ground looking like: a family facing cuts… this is the human side and what it’s going to turn into.”

In an interview following the presentation, Cardinal also shared that she wants to get more homeless persons into transitional housing, where they can learn profitable trades. She hopes to start this vocation training program in Portland through funding from one of the major local employers.

John Buday can be reached at [email protected]