NEW YORK — SHOCK that a ``wealthy'' country tolerates such a tragic and shameful phenomenon as homelessness. Disbelief that families do not help more. Those are the two predominant reactions of a group of 28 foreign students, many of them Asian, who spent a recent weekend as volunteers helping New York City's homeless.
The 48-hour, bring-your-sleeping-bag workshop was organized by Metro International, a group aimed at broadening the experience beyond the classroom of foreign students at 65 colleges in the area. Headquartered at the Friends Meeting House and sponsored by the Quaker-based Youth Service Opportunities Project, the program included having supper with and readying cots for homeless guests at the Friends shelter, hearing experts speak on the subject, serving up meals in soup kitchens around the city, and dispersing sandwiches to the homeless around Grand Central Station on Saturday night.
The students were urged to dismiss stereotypes and get to know the homeless individually.
Metro, a nonprofit group founded by foreign-student advisers and funded in part by the United States Information Agency, arranges everything from American home visits to environmental workshops. While some Americans frown on the idea of showing foreign students the seamier side of American life, such as homelessness, Metro executive director Stacey Simon says most students see it anyway and assume little is being done about it. ``They should have the chance to understand what the problems are and what we as a society are doing to alleviate them.... They should be not just observers but participants while they're here.''
At the weekend's close, Mike Baki, director of the Youth Service project, encouraged the students to share ``the picture'' that each would take away from the experience.
Many were impressed by the selflessness and generosity of the American volunteers they met.
Some students said they were surprised by the concern and care expressed by many homeless for one another.
``I thought they'd be fighting, but they actually seemed to look out for each other,'' said Kate Neale from England.
Tiny Modisakeng of South Africa said she was impressed by the innocent buoyancy of the homeless children she met: ``They seemed so happy and unaware of the situation they were in - that really touched me.''
``Many of the homeless make their own world to survive and to feel some warmth,'' noted Panta Silva, a New York University student from northern Brazil.
A number of the students argued that much more must be done. ``When I saw the same kind of people in Hong Kong, mostly older refugees from mainland China who had no family to take care of them, I would feel very sad,'' said Yong-Ping Lee, a student from Taiwan attending New York University. ``But when I see homeless people in this country, my feelings are full of anger because it doesn't make any sense.'' And Robert Hanss of Germany said: ``We have a good welfare system, and I think sometimes government has to step in and do something.''
Jane Kuo, a Taiwanese who is studying filmmaking at Temple University in Philadelphia, said she was amazed that many of the homeless managed to keep their sense of humor in spite of all their problems. One strong impression, forged from a year of living in this country, she said, is that it is much easier for those who are strong and forceful to get ahead in this society. The weak, by contrast, she said, tend to get weaker. ``It's the system.''