Students Make Statement to Help Area Homeless

Published 12.07.2005

Human Services & Restorative Justice
Student News

From left, Penn College students Kara S. Mifsud, Sara E. Baker and Amanda R. Stepp brave the cold and snow to call attention to the plight of the homeless.While frigid winds gusted, whipping snowflakes through the air, students enrolled in the human services major at Pennsylvania College of Technology alternated shifts to spend 24 hours outdoors at Market and West Fourth streets in Williamsport recently to call attention to the number of people who are homeless in Lycoming County and the surrounding region.

Fourteen students enrolled in the Community and Organizational Change course worked together to form a service-learning project. Focusing on homelessness, they held hot dog sales on campus, through which they collected money and outerwear to be donated to St. Anthony's Center, and distributed brochures containing facts about homelessness.

"That was to reach the college community, but we also wanted to reach outside the college community," said student Kara S. Mifsud, Montoursville.

Student Sara E. Baker, of Allenwood, came up with the idea to hold a camp-out. The students took shifts, with an average of four students at a time, and held signs at the corner from noon Friday, Dec. 2, to noon Saturday, Dec. 3. The students explained statistics regarding local homelessness to passersby who approached them, with some promising to return with outerwear donations. The donations were collected at the Williamsport YMCA.

One driver who stopped his vehicle to ask the students about their mission wondered about a sign that proclaimed one in 10 people in Lycoming County is homeless, questioning why those people are not seen sleeping along local streets.

According to the students' research, members of the community often fail to understand the problem of homelessness because few homeless people take up residence in parks, on city sidewalks or in other public places. Many people deal with homelessness by crowding into relatives' homes, creating multiple-family dwellings in a single-family residence, finding temporary housing in motels and homeless shelters, landing in jail, or moving from place to place. Using the broadest definition, it is estimated that 30,000 children in Pennsylvania and about one in 10 people in Lycoming County can be considered homeless.

Having received the answers to his question, the driver asked how the public could help. Another community member, who had heard about the camp-out on the radio, stopped by with clothing donations. Later, two young men pulled up, asked about the demonstration, then quickly reached into their car and handed over a jacket and sweatshirt.

The students worked for most of the semester to research and organize the event. Their research found that, in Pennsylvania, a minimum-wage earner can afford $268 a month for rent, while the fair-market cost of a two-bedroom unit is listed at $596 a month.

According to Elizabeth L. Meyer, associate professor of human services/social science, the course's goal is to help students understand that helping others sometimes involves not only bringing services to people, but also requires literally creating social change. She said that often begins with community awareness. She said the project was successful in helping students learn what it takes to effect change and raise consciousness about a problem, as well as prompting a response from the community.

"I learned there is a lot involved in a service project," said Amanda R. Stepp, South Williamsport.

To execute their camp-out, the students worked with several agencies, including the Williamsport Bureau of Codes; the Mayor's Office; the Williamsport Bureau of Police; Penn College Police; Senior Vice President William J. Martin, Student Affairs staff and Academic Affairs staff at Penn College; St. Anthony's Center; the Williamsport YMCA; the Genetti Hotel; and area media, including radio and television stations and newspapers.

"I think this experience also raised students' awareness of the experience that homeless people who are on the streets have when the weather turns cold," Meyer said. "The temperatures were in the 20s, and in the teens with the wind-chill index. We were freezing, and yet we were dressed far more warmly than most persons who are homeless can dress."

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