April 7, 2005
|A UMNS photo by John Gordon
College students from First United Methodist Church of Round Rock, Texas, hike to a homeless-aid agency.
By John Gordon*
ROCK, Texas (UMNS)—While many college students head for the beach for
spring break, a group from a Texas church spent the time off shivering
under a bridge and scrounging for food, learning about life as homeless
young men and women from First United Methodist Church of Round Rock
spent three days on the streets of nearby Austin and several area
communities. Each started with only $7 and faced the daily challenges of
finding food, transportation and a place to sleep.
The experience was "definitely life-changing," says Kimmy Beitelshees, 18, a student at Texas Tech University.
Petersen, a student at Austin Community College, agrees. "I’d have to
say that I ignored (the homeless) enough, that I didn’t actually know
how bad the problem really was," he says.
students were accompanied by B.K. Crowe, the church’s student
ministries director. Crowe wanted them to experience firsthand the
problems faced by the homeless, and how churches and other agencies
respond to their needs. It was the first time the church had sponsored
such a program.
"I’ve been, just like
a lot of people, passing the homeless on the street and not really
looking them in the eye or paying much attention," says Crowe. "They
become almost invisible people, in a way, but they are very real
|A UMNS photo by John Gordon
A bridge serves as a place to sleep for a group of college students from First United Methodist Church in Round Rock, Texas.
study by the Urban Institute estimates 3.5 million people, including
1.35 million children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given
year. A growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous
increase in poverty are largely responsible for the rise in
homelessness during the past 25 years, according to the National
Coalition for the Homeless.
students’ survival quest started at their church. Each received bus
passes and a few $10 food vouchers from the Rev. David Adkins, senior
pastor. There was no bus service to an agency they wanted to visit for
food and clothes. So they hiked nearly 10 miles to The Caring Place in
isn’t known for being particularly friendly to the homeless. A
counselor at The Caring Place says police often drop off homeless people
at the city limits with instructions to keep walking.
Caring Place provided the students with lunch and vouchers to pick out
used clothing from a store the agency operates. The organization helps
11,000 families each year, and the workers and volunteers are
"incredible," Beitelshees says. "They’ve all got such open hearts."
of the biggest eye-openers was standing in line with real homeless
people outside a Salvation Army shelter in Austin. Every night, the
homeless line up for a lottery of sorts, drawing numbers to determine
who can spend the night in indoor shelters.
Those who don’t make the cut can be found sleeping in parks, under bridges or wherever they can find a space.
"Intense," Beitelshees says of the wait. "I had my eyes closed for part of it, but it was not what I was expecting at all."
students ended up unrolling their sleeping bags under a bridge about a
mile from the Texas state Capitol. As they camped for the night,
temperatures dropped into the 40s, and a cold wind blew across them.
was just like sleeping in ice," says Scott Raney, a University of Texas
student. "It’s definitely given me a greater sense of empathy, what
they have to go through every day."
Beitelshees, sleeping under a bridge was a first. "I never woke up with
dust and sand in my mouth before," she says. "I can’t imagine going
through it every single day. Last night was the longest night of my
group got up early to work in the kitchen at the Salvation Army
shelter. While some scrambled eggs, others chopped hundreds of pounds of
kind of humbling to go downtown and help other people that actually
have nothing," says Anthony Cooper, a Texas Tech student.
second day brought a cold rain as the group walked to a bus stop and
then spent several hours sleeping on the floor of a bus station, waiting
to return to Round Rock. They found an open door at their church and
spent the night on the floor—as the real homeless have done in the past.
Armed with a new perspective, the students pledge to do more to help homeless people.
The United Methodist Book of Resolutions
says: "The Bible calls us to commit ourselves to welcoming the stranger
into our midst and to seeing all people as belonging to the family of
God. The church must recognize in deed as well as word that homeless
people are our neighbors, seek to learn who are the homeless in our
communities and speak out on their behalf in our congregations and in
the larger community."
Jackson, who attends Texas A&M University, says she never before
noticed people lining up outside the homeless shelter in downtown
Austin, where she and her friends like to go dancing.
just made me realize how well I have it and how much these people need
help—that they’re not just bums," she says. "I saw families who are
really in need at that serving center. I just really want to go help the
*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer in Marshall, Texas.
News media contact: Fran Walsh, (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.