by Kendra Branchick
"Homelessness" is a term that conjures up unsavory images in the popular imagination, flat, generic, clichés that owe as much to fear as to fact. The truth is, children account for a shocking proportion of the homeless in America today, as do women fleeing abuse, as do the working poor, many of whom find it impossible to secure affordable housing in many of our cities. If working men and women and children number so greatly among the homeless, why do the stereotypes of the pushy panhandler and the drunken bum continue to dominate our collective vision of homelessness? Why does this population continue to grow? What can be done to alleviate the circumstances surrounding homelessness in America? Should we act? Should we care?
Ask Christopher Fee to talk about his first-year seminar on homelessness in the United States, and -- like any good English professor -- he's quick to use a metaphor.
In this case, the image is a sinking ship. Well, maybe not a sinking ship. Fee quickly amended the first image to a leaking boat. "What we do in this course," he said, "is think about how the boat is put together and where the holes are and how we can begin to address the holes in the boat at the same time that we're bailing water out. I want them to be thinking about how big the boat is, where the boat's going, where the holes are. And what are these holes? Are they caused by rocks? Have we hit something? And how are we going to fix those holes?"
Finding the tools to fix holes
That last question is particularly important. Students take a wide range of courses during their four years as undergraduates, Fee noted, but they all have the same common denominator. Professors want their students to understand key concepts that relate to a specific discipline. The implied hope is that students will subsequently be able to use this classroom knowledge in practical ways when they leave college and enter the "real world."
At Gettysburg College, faculty have in recent years been looking for ways to combine more hands-on or practical experiences with what goes on in the classroom, and Fee's class is one example. Fee, like others, has partnered with the College's Center for Public Service (CPS) to add service requirements to his class on the literature and legacy of homelessness. "It makes the learning more personal," he said. "They gain a more visceral sense of the problems, while at the same time learning in a practical way some of the ¿tools' that are already being used to help the homeless."
Passion and enthusiasm
Meeting with Fee at his office in Breidenbaugh Hall, it's obvious why he has chosen to teach the first-year seminar, Trying to Find a Way Back Home: Introduction to the Literature and Legacy of Homelessness in America. The outside of his office door is covered with stickers from numerous national and international service organizations -- Habitat for Humanity, Amnesty International, CPS, D.C. Central Kitchen, National Coalition for the Homeless.
Fee's passion and enthusiasm for the course are also readily apparent when he speaks. "I come from a traditional service background where what you do is pull up your sleeves and you do your part," he said. "And you're not a hero. You're simply pulling your weight. Of course, people not participating aren't villains. They're just not pulling their weight. It's the same as when you walk across campus and see a piece of trash on the ground. You pick it up and throw it away."
Reading, writing, and service
Students in the class seem to share Fee's enthusiasm and social concern. Melissa Arsenie '10 from Roxbury, Conn., for example, said that the seminar was her first choice "because I was never really exposed to homelessness as an issue before and wanted to learn more. I always kind of turned away from the homeless when I walked down a street in a larger city. I wanted to better myself and become more informed on this issue."
The course is structured around a lengthy reading list that includes Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness by Peter Rossi, readings on welfare reform in the 1980s, Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America by Jonathan Kozol, and Begging for Change by Robert Egger. Students have weekly writing assignments, create blogs, and write a 15-page research paper. The writing is so intensive that it fulfills the College's introductory writing requirement for first-year students. In addition to this rigorous academic component, all students are required during the semester to complete 20 hours of service at a local organization, such as the Gettysburg Soup Kitchen, Adams County Homeless Shelter, Adams County Literacy Council, or El Centro -- an organization that helps local and migrant children with school work. They are also required to join a student service organization on campus, such as Alpha Phi Omega, Habitat for Humanity, or CPS. Add a four-day trip to Washington, D.C. over Reading Days in October, during which students serve at such national organizations as D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK), National Coalition for the Homeless, and N Street Village, and you start to get a feeling for how demanding the course is.
Thinking about homelessness
Given all the service that the students perform during the semester, you might think that they experience almost everything they read about. But for Fee, the experience of service isn't sufficient. Nor is the reading by itself. He wants the students to use the readings to start thinking about the service they have participated in.
"The students really need to be thinking about the matrix of problems that cause homelessness," Fee said. "Homelessness has to do with so many things. They need to realize that they're not saving the world when they are at DCCK chopping onions or playing bingo with the women from the shelter. Still, those onions need to be chopped, and there are only so many people working in the kitchen. And the women, they want some human interaction with some nice people who just accept them as a bunch of nice people. The students are helping to pull their weight while at the same time the wheels are turning in their heads about how they might be able to apply the DCCK model to the food that is wasted at Gettysburg College and the hungry people who live in Adams County, for example."
For Fee, the students need more than just an emotional response to homelessness if they are going to understand it. "I worry that if you just have an emotional or sentimental response without an intellectual understanding of the problem, people get tired of hearing about it," he said. "You saw that with Katrina relief and the tsunami disaster. You see an outpouring of generosity after disasters, but then people go back to their normal lives.
"It's essential to have that academic background. First of all, because we are a college and that is what we should be doing; but secondly because then you really have to think about homelessness. We have to learn about these things in order to have a sense of what the issues are. Otherwise, we're just ladling out soup or talking to people in the street. That wouldn't be bad. In fact, it would be good and fine. But it's not enough. There is not going to be any change that way."
Fixing the holes
A.J. Nappo '10 from Westtown, N.Y. agrees with Fee's assessment. "This course is academically challenging in many ways," he said. "We have tough writing assignments that push us to become better writers. But I find this course to be especially enriching because I constantly find myself thinking and putting different aspects of the course together. In my service placements, I'm thinking about how it applies to the reading or vice versa. How do my service experiences play into what we are talking about in class? I never really had an experience like this where all the different factors were woven together."
All 14 students in the class agreed that the course, with its combination of academics and service, had made them more aware of an important social issue in this country. Several even felt inspired to continue to fight for change, though as Arsenie said, "we know that the road ahead is a long one."
"From reading the books to interacting with the homeless in Gettysburg and Washington, D.C., I've learned the homeless are not a ¿them,'" Arsenie said. "They are Americans and human beings. I no longer look at the homeless as some demographic that is separate from everyone. Everything we do in this course has had a compounding effect on me. Homelessness is a problem for which we are still searching for a definite solution. It's important that we start looking for those permanent solutions instead of adding band-aids to a growing wound."
Fee echoes that sentimentt. "I think that a course like this is only the tiniest step in the direction of fixing the holes in the boat, but it's more than just bailing water. It's saying, ¿Okay, while you're bailing out water, you need to think about why you're bailing.' You also realize that you need to bail that water because if everybody stops bailing, the boat is going to sink. And we certainly don't want that to happen, because we're all in the same boat."
If you're interested in learning more about homelessness in the United States, a good place to start is the reading list from Prof. Chris Fee's first-year seminar.
¿ Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient, and Rewarding for All, by Robert Egger. An exposé of waste and ineffectiveness in the nonprofit sector.
¿ Beyond the Shelter Wall: Homeless Families Speak Out, by Ralph da Costa Nunez with Naomi Sugie. Profiles of five different women living in transitional shelters which recount the stories and personal struggles of homeless families.
¿ Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness, by Peter Rossi. Documents the striking contrasts between the homeless of the 1950s and 1960s and the contemporary homeless population, which is younger and contains more women, children, and African Americans.
¿ Flat Broke With Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform, by Sharon Hays. Focuses on single mothers in two towns who have at times relied on welfare for support.
¿ Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street, by Lee Stringer. A memoir that chronicles the unraveling of a seemingly secure existence as a marketing executive to an odyssey of survival on the streets of New York City.
¿ The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. Depiction of the lives of ordinary people striving to preserve their humanity in the face of social and economic desperation.
¿ Ironweed, by William Kennedy. A schizophrenic drifter spends Halloween in his hometown after returning there for the first time in decades.
¿ Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. An investigation into the impact of the 1996 welfare reform on the "working poor" - or hourly workers - in the United States.
¿ Not All of Us Are Saints: A Doctor's Journey With the Poor, by David Hilfiker. A story of how faith and dedication made a difference when Hilfiker left a rural practice in Minnesota and began to practice poverty medicine in a ravaged ghetto near the White House.
¿ Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, by Jonathan Kozol. An unforgettable record that documents the desperate voices of men, women, and children caught up in the nightmarish situation of being homeless.
¿ Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women, by Elliot Liebow. A portrayal of women living in shelters near Washington, D.C., and how they struggle to retain their dignity in the face of rejection by society.
¿ Who Qualifies for Rights: Homelessness, Mental Illness, and Civil Commitment, by Judith Lynn Failer. An examination of the logic and language of rights of people with severe mental illness and the theory behind civil commitment.
No one is more excited about the Campus Kitchens project than Louisa Polos '08 of Katonah, N.Y. Polos was a student in Prof. Chris Fee's first-year seminar on homelessness two years ago, and has now served as a student assistant to the course for the last two years. She's also become heavily involved with the Center for Public Service.
"Last summer I attended a program on homelessness in Washington, D.C.," Polos said. "I worked closely with Robert Egger, founder of D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK), and I learned a lot. When I heard about their Campus Kitchens project, I thought it would be a perfect thing to start at Gettysburg."
The Campus Kitchens Project follows the effort developed at DCCK in Washington, D.C., where food is donated by restaurants, banquets, and hotels and reused to provide more than 4,000 meals a day to the homeless. Here in Gettysburg, Polos said, "perfectly good food that is going to be thrown away could be recycled to feed people in the local community. Local restaurants and hotels could also donate to the effort, and students staff their campus kitchens during slower periods to prepare, cook, and distribute the food to the local community."
Ten colleges and universities around the country currently participate in this program, including Wake Forest, Minnesota State, and Washington & Lee. Polos hopes to bring the same program to Gettysburg - doing, as Fee saw it, "a bit of boat repair while simultaneously bailing more than her share."
Prof. Chris Fee's first-year seminar on homelessness isn't the only class that combines service learning with classroom learning.
Prof. Paula Olinger in the Spanish department, for example, requires students in her third-year Spanish composition and conversation course to spend at least an hour a week working with students at El Centro - an organization that helps local and migrant children with homework lessons. The interaction with the mostly Hispanic population at the center furthers the students' understanding of the language, while also helping the students with their learning.
And Prof. Jennifer Hansen in the philosophy department has students in her course on gender and identity spend more than 30 hours working with her and local community partners on a research project to solve a pressing community problem or affect social change. At the end of the semester students keep a web-based log or blog to record their progress and present a final paper and make a presentation to the community partners on their solutions.