An academic look at homelessness

"Homelessness and Shelter," a course at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, teaches students about the socioeconomic, political, and ethical issues surrounding poverty and homelessness. It combines hands-on learning with rigorous coursework and field visits to local shelters and soup kitchens. Students also take weekend trips to Boston and Montreal, where they discuss their ideas with homeless people and distribute meals, blankets, and clothing.

Teachers Chris Carlisle and United Christian Foundation Chaplain Kent Higgins say the class is the only college-credit course on homelessness in the United States. (It grew out of campus interfaith efforts, but there is no proselytizing.)

At their weekly meetings, students learn about the roots of homelessness, discuss possible solutions, and look at what motivates people to take social action. Students also volunteer two to three hours a week in shelters or soup kitchens.

Economics and history professors are among those who give students perspective on the issue. One lecturer told students that there's compelling evidence that philanthropy is a more natural inclination for people than selfishness.

Readings include "Rachel and Her Children" by Jonathan Kozol; "A Volunteer's Guide to Working with the Homeless" by Ann Abbott; "Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street" by L. Stringer; and "It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty" by Rebecca Blank.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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