Homeless and Hungry on Campus

BY DANIELLE ROY // DEC. 5, 2010 //

You may have noticed the fliers around campus regarding homelessness in Massachusetts and the United States. What few students seem to know, however, is the purpose behind the paper.

This fall, students in a first-year seminar course titled “Discover: Community Action” decided to do a class project around homelessness, poverty and inequality in the United States. They researched their subjects—about 2 million Americans, half of which are children, are currently homeless, they found—and later spent a day volunteering at The Greater Boston Food Bank, the largest hunger-relief organization in New England. But it was part three of the project that was the toughest: an on-campus overnight sleep-out.

“This wasn’t about pretending to be homeless. It’s more about deeply reflecting on what you have, what if it’s taken away from you for a little bit, what you don’t have, and what it feels like,” said Professor Karen Lischinsky, who led the overnight learning experience with Professor Carrie Cokely. “It was really about what it would be like to be disempowered, and the students didn’t realize how disempowered they would be.”

The sleep-out began on Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. and continued until 11 the following morning. Students were allowed to bring the clothes on their bodies, a sleeping bag, and nothing else. As it turned out, Nov. 16 was a rainy day…and night.

After spending hours in the rain, students became hungry and were told that they could go to a makeshift soup kitchen in the AAPC, where they would be given some bread with turkey and bologna, potato chips and apples to eat, but nothing to drink. Once the students began to get comfortable and warm, Lischinsky told them that the “kitchen” was closing and they had to leave. Frustrated, they returned to the rain with the bitter taste of injustice. Some students were quickly losing their patience.

“You can leave,” Lischinsky told them. “But if you do leave, you’ve acted on your class privilege.” Everyone stuck it out. They found cover to get some sleep, and to pass the time, some students started to sing, Lischinsky said.

“I did sprints back and forth on the ledge in front of Hafer, and pushups because it was so cold,” said Dan Ockene, who was part of the sleep-out.

To bolster the reality and learning, Lischinsky gave some students snacks, or pieces of candy, while others received nothing. She later asked the students who didn’t receive anything how it made them feel, and encouraged them to try to remember that feeling the next time they saw someone homeless on the street.

During their experience students also learned how some people react to and act on homelessness. One person, who remains unknown, brought two large cartons of hot chocolate for the students. Another, a professor unaware of the students’ experiment, kicked and yelled at them for sleeping outside Hafer and called public safety. “It was amazing in the sense that it does reflect reality. Hate crimes against the homeless are real, but we don’t talk about it,” Lischinsky said. “Hate crimes against poor people doesn’t get recognized, but it’s real and it happens a lot.”

After the sleep-out, students said it was one of the worst times they have ever experienced, yet they got a lot out of it.

“If I was that cold every night, I wouldn’t be able to survive,” said student Ethan Wajer after his time at the sleep-out. “It helped us to understand what homeless people go through, except it’s 1,000 times worse.”

“Through it all, it taught me that someone who really is in this situation can easily lose their self-confidence and mentally shut down,” added student participant Chelsie Young. “Being homeless can be degrading.”

It’s that kind of understanding that made the project an academic success, said Lischinsky.

“This experience was something that couldn’t be recreated in a classroom, but the classroom became the outside world,” she said. “It is a different kind of teaching, very effective. It takes theory into practice.

“Student activism doesn’t just last from 11:30 to 12:20.”

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