Students Speak on Engagement with Homelessness

Daniel Rury

Sociology research students and members of two outreach groups, Urban Plunge and Urban Involvement, came together to share their engagement with homelessness. Student volunteers and researchers presented their experiences to a student audience in Emerson Lobby on May 16.

Andria Fredriks and Madeline McDonald presented their homeless population estimate research. According to Fredriks, when their group began investigating homelessness, the Seattle mayor’s office and a number of news outlets had stated the number of tent encampments in Seattle since 2017 to be around 400. When officials were pressed for answers, they could not find the original source to corroborate the number. This triggered the development of the sociology students’ preliminary tent estimate project.

They started by counting tents in neighborhoods, but realized they would need to take care to keep their technique ethical and empathetic. Their hope, McDonald said, was to “be respectful. These are people’s homes. I would feel weird if people came into my home and started counting my stuff.”

The project, featuring eight sociology students, began this quarter and surveyed six neighborhoods. They hope to refine their estimate by surveying four more neighborhoods.

A panel of five students who had taken part in Urban Plunge in December 2018 presented their experiences as well.

Samuel Black, a previous Urban Plunger and this year’s Plunge Coordinator, described the Plunge’s five-day immersion experience as a means to “allow students to learn about the challenges that those experiencing homelessness face,” and a way to learn what resources are available to help them.

A Plunge volunteer had only two scheduled events during their five-day experience. Each night they slept on the floor of a church in downtown Seattle, and each day met up at a specific site in Seattle.

SPU students Gray Kolde and Abram Johnson reflected on a sense of community they took for granted. Kolde saw how homeless people’s temperaments were affected by their social lives. He saw resilience in fellowship and struggles in social isolation. Johnson felt first-hand the otherness of being asked to leave a business during open hours and worrying about bed bugs when he went to sleep.

Sophomore Ryan Kennedy found generous, helpful people willing to bring material relief to the homeless, and recollected meeting a curious man named George, to the laughs of the rest of the panel. George knew that Kennedy’s group were SPU students right away and showed them around the city.

Senior Simone Neal recalled a day where she thought she might have missed her chance to find a meal and instead went to a Lutheran church service, expecting a lull. She was surprised to find out the church was serving a meal at the time and runs a homeless shelter below it. Now Neal returns to the church each Sunday, connecting with the community’s unfamiliar messages and theologies.

For sophomore Natasha Koval, the Plunge brought internalized fear to the surface. Koval remembered her upbringing, where threat assessment was a regular part of the female experience. Realizing that a demonizing fear of potential threats could paralyze her when making important decisions, she needed to adjust her mindset.

Real dangers affect homeless women day-to-day, from assault to abduction, but Koval’s takeaway from the experience was to have “caution over fear” and to be “open, but not letting my guard down.” A crucial part of navigating the streets was discernment.

Urban Involvement connects students with positions to serve. Three Urban Involvement participants came to talk about their experience working with the homeless at a volunteer role at Pike’s Place Market.

Sophomore Jeanne Coyle said, “I didn’t know what to replace my stereotypes with.”
Coyle found that superficial connections like majors and favorite music genre were not useful when trying to connect with the people she served. She was able to use this opportunity to grow her openness to learn about a person and broaden her view of homeless people.

As Erin Kawelo served, she also recognized the dire need for human connection. “Most of the time we were there to listen.” Through serving, Kawelo could experience part of people’s stories.

Urban involvement team coordinator Loriel Arcangel invited people to an experience with homelessness, not because it will be solved right away, but because students can learn ways to engage with their local community.