A college course turns to the streets for real-life lessons

Service, interaction help students learn about homelessness

Matthew is not what you'd consider a typical expert enlisted to share his experience with college students. He hasn't earned a degree. He doesn't have an office - or even a phone.

But on a recent warm October day, a group of college students are spellbound as Matthew shares his first-hand expertise in a problem they witness every day: homelessness.

Holding court in the Boston subway as trains screech through the dark, Matthew educates his audience - members of an unusual class on homelessness and poverty from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst - about everything from finding food to breaking through locked doors in search of a warm place to sleep.

All it takes, he intones, is one bad winter night. "I'm freezing, there's nowhere to go," he says of his thought process. "You want to get in, you need to get in."

The course's goal is an understanding of homelessness that transcends classroom lectures and policy discussions. Reflective of efforts at colleges around the country to enhance in-class study with hands-on experience, the class combines service learning with lectures.

Reading and writing assignments cover political, economic, and historical aspects of poverty (see story, below). Students also hand out food and clothing.

Through the wide-ranging approach, participants - whose majors range from engineering to sociology - hope not only to gain a clearer sense of the world beyond their dorm rooms, but also to probe for solutions to a seemingly intractable problem.

Indeed, more than 700,000 people in America were homeless on any given night in 1999, and up to 2 million people during the year, according to National Coalition for the Homeless. Many are hampered by a lack of affordable rents and buildings that accommodate group living.

Sandwiches and socks

On this particular day, the U-Mass group joins students from Dartmouth College, Boston University, and other schools where volunteers work with an outreach program called City Reach.

The students organize a clothing giveaway at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral. Then they fill their backpacks with sandwiches and socks and head out on the streets in small teams.

As they pass park benches, narrow alleys, and expansive fields, they hear a common message from the former truck drivers, teachers, and war veterans who make up the homeless community: We never thought it would happen to us.

Matthew, who has lived on the street for three years since losing his job, tells students that one night a few years ago, he broke into a train station and slept on a marble bench. He awoke to commuters reading newspapers.

"I prayed I hadn't been snoring," he says with a chuckle. But, he adds, "people walked right past me. It's like a whole other world..., another speed."

A key element in this kind of a class is careful planning and focus to avoid seeming voyeuristic, says Meg Campbell, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

"It can sharpen and form life directions," she says. "You can't become an auto mechanic without practicing on the car. It requires added work from the teacher..., a great deal of respect and planning."

Firsthand insights

Students agree, pointing to the advantages of gaining firsthand insights.

"Both [of us] are students and teachers," says Eric Chapdelaine, a senior and biochemistry major at U-Mass. "I learned more in the one class [in which a homeless man] came and talked to us than I learned in all my four years. You meet these people on the streets and you realize that without parents or a support system you could easily become homeless."

On the walk, a few students quietly stand over a man sleeping on a park bench in Boston Common. One places food and juice nearby. As they continue, Matthew describes the struggles of not having a roof to sleep under. He points to a tree where one homeless friend froze to death. He recalls retreats to spacious bathrooms in the John Hancock building to get some "peace and quiet." He also tells of sleeping in the winter over the heating grates outside the library.

These personal stories are what students say they will remember most from the weekend. Yet some at first feel anxiety about the interactions, says their teacher, the Rev. Chris Carlisle. But he says they tend to walk away feeling "empowered to do something about it." The class "helps illuminate commonalities in a socioeconomic system that emphasizes differences."

Bill, who has lived in a shelter for more than a year, explains that stereotyping the homeless is a common mistake. Just short of earning a PhD, he used to teach music in public schools. But he lost his home when he suffered from depression.

"If someone tells you a homeless person is a bum with a dirty raincoat, a hat without a brim, and oily pants on, then what are you gonna say to them?" he asks the students.

"It's not the case," students respond in unison.

He's currently involved in work-placement programs and hopes to find a home soon. Educating students keeps him focused, he says, and he hopes they will work toward solutions.

Some possibilities include strengthening job programs, building more affordable housing, and helping low-income people improve their credit, everyone agrees. Many homeless - who are typically single, minority males - have disabilities or addictions that keep them from working.

Though some people without homes say they are unmotivated, a large number possess a drive to succeed but lack resources or education, adds Don, a war veteran who lives in a shelter. Don just started a merchandising job at Filene's Basement and hopes to have a place of his own soon. "I'm here because I didn't want to be sitting up there watching TV with all the other men and not doing anything," he says.

As they leave, students discuss other solutions, which include putting decisionmakers in closer touch with the problems and creating programs that encourage changes in behavior. Matthew, for one, advocates as a temporary solution that churches open their doors to the homeless at night.

But most important, students say they walk away with a newfound respect for homeless people. "I was just amazed at how active some of them are.... I don't know what they're not capable of," says Carl Gieringer, who traveled to Boston with his church group at Dartmouth.

Jenna Sippel, a sophomore at U Mass, agrees. "It's totally humbling. These people have so much faith.... It makes me want to be like them."


(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.