A College Course Turns to the Streets for Real-Life Lessons ; Service, Interaction Help Students Learn about Homelessness

By Stephanie Cook writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 2000 | Go to article overview

A College Course Turns to the Streets for Real-Life Lessons ; Service, Interaction Help Students Learn about Homelessness


Stephanie Cook writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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