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Students Live Homeless as Part of New Course

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Midway through the “Half Way Home: Giving Ear to the Homeless Experience” forum held on the Loyola Marymount University campus in April, chaos erupted in Pereira Hall as attendees got a taste of what it’s like to be homeless.

Following scripted vignettes, some 50 students, faculty and others moved from one makeshift assistance station to another as they tried to accomplish tasks the homeless typically face. Some were fed a starchy, salty, low-nutrition meal, but not before attending a mandatory church service. Others short of enough cash to ride Metro, resigned themselves to a long walk to a medical clinic. Still others looked longingly at a can of ravioli they had no way to open, or went away hungry after a soup kitchen ran out of food. With no available storage, participants lugged awkward boxes of belongings wherever they went – one student kept warm wrapped in a freebie Mylar blanket. The turmoil in the room was exacerbated by audio blasting the unremitting screech of life on the city streets.

Students in a new “Health & Wellbeing in Homeless Communities” class developed the interactive forum to report on what they’d learned about the complex problem of homelessness, including their firsthand experience living on the streets for three days where they encountered barriers to wellbeing, health and safety similar to those described in the vignettes. The forum also allowed students to share the practical resources they developed as a way to help the homeless community.

“Homelessness is an attack on all your senses – you can’t sleep, you can’t be quiet, you might have to walk all day on sore feet,” said Health and Human Sciences Professor Heather Tarleton, who co-developed the class with Communications Studies Professor Timothy Huffman. “I can say that to you in a classroom, but if you don’t experience it you really don’t understand it.”

Most of the course’s 19 students were already active in service before enrolling in this “immersion” or “engaged-learning” class, which was designed to deepen their ability to help in relevant and meaningful ways by gaining real-world knowledge of the people they serve.

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As part of the course, students wrote resource guides to help the homeless navigate the existing support system. They teamed up with a nonprofit to request grant funding to produce the resource guides and create Welcome Home Kits containing bathroom, kitchen, laundry and cleaning basics to homeless people transitioning into permanent housing. One request went unfunded, while another grant was a winner. They also launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to purchase Welcome Home Kits supplies provided by the Skidrow Housing Trust to the recently homeless. Between the winning grant and the online campaign the students had raised $800 by April toward their goal of $1,200.

“The most profound thing we all learned from this course is how education connects with social action and what a classroom could be,” said Huffman. “It was a transformative experience.”

“It was awesome to learn about social injustice while learning how you can make a difference,” said LaShyra Nolen, 20, a Health and Human Sciences sophomore. “It’s how our education should be.”

“We’re not going to solve homelessness with this class,” Tarleton said. “What we wanted to do was to take the lens back a little bit to understand the bigger problem.”

This course was taught for the first time this spring, and Tarleton and Huffman hope to teach some version of this course in the future.