The whole point of college is to be exposed to different cultures, people, personalities, and environments. It is only through this way that way may mold ourselves into individuals who are a little more educated and well-rounded than before. One of the many classes at the College Experience Program (CEP) that accomplishes this goal is the Community Service class that is led by Kelly Weiss. I have the privilege of being a part of this curriculum along with our co-instructor, Judy Hartley. We have started with the unit of Homelessness.
I kept my knee-jerk perceptions and stereotypes of what homelessness is in our society to myself. The students also had their own opinions based on what is seen in the movies and perhaps a few negative experiences they have had in the past. I thought of them as individuals who make a choice to live for the day instead of forcing themselves to endure a grueling work schedule like those who are productive in our society.
They say, “God Bless You” when you give them money, but are at it again shortly afterwards with the same request every single time you pass those you choose to help. You become an “easy mark” and I have often felt foolish the couple of times in which I was guilted into giving them some of the cash that was earned from a hard day of work.
There was also the time when I followed someone’s advice to buy them food instead of giving them money. When I tried this tactic they piled close to $20.00 worth of groceries at Price Chopper, and I learned my hard lesson. I am always polite but this outward demeanor masks contempt when repeatedly asked for money. Perhaps you too have also wondered whether the hours spent asking strangers for dollar bills could have been spent searching for a way to better their situation.
We teach the students to be polite, but do not give anybody money because we want them to be safe. The staff spends a lot of time letting them know that taking out a wallet or purse to take out money can make them a victim. Most of our students are also on a limited budget and need to conserve these resources for food as well as the occasional spurts of entertainment. The very wise Judy Hartley has explained, “When you give someone money you are not necessarily bettering their situation.” Dr. Phil also said once in an episode about credit card debt, “You cannot solve money problems with more money.” The Community Service class has taught us there are other ways to help this population in which the students remain safe.
The staff drove the students to take an enlightening tour of a shelter run by the Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless on Thursday, January 28. This was an Emergency, 30-day shelter for people whose situation was unexpected due to any number of factors. It was here that we learned what exists beyond the stereotypes and Hollywood personification of people burdened by these realities. For one thing, the lodging areas looked comfortable and had furnished bunk beds instead of the hundred dirty cots and ratty blankets in movie versions of homeless shelters.
Our perception of such shelters were buildings used to warehouse these people for the night to keep them away from trouble and the public. They are offered three meals a day and the cycle of destitution continues forever. Our false notions of these buildings were to provide food and shelter. The Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless does so much more for people in our Albany community…many who are doing the best they can with medical issues and circumstances beyond their control.
One stereotype we had of the homeless population is a sense of chronic unemployment because of the conscious choice to shirk work and make their living off of “begging” and taking advantage of the kindness from well-meaning people. Our amazing tour guide, Clarice informed us that most of the people in the shelters have jobs, but it is sadly not enough to become independent just yet. The shelter works with them on budgeting, employment, and life skills. Plenty of the skills taught to the residents are indeed similar to the lessons we teach the students within the College Experience Program (CEP).
The visit ended and some of the students even expressed an interest in continuing their volunteerism at the shelter under the watchful eyes of the staff. Now…more than ever…we are proud of our students for having an open mind and heart!