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College students live among the homeless for spring break

 


College students live among the homeless for spring break

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

College students from First United Methodist Church of Round Rock, Texas, hike to a homeless-aid agency.
April 7, 2005

By John Gordon*

ROUND 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 people.

Six 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.

David 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.

The 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.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
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.
"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 people."

A 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.

The 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 nearby Georgetown.

Georgetown 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.

The 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."

One 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."

The 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.

"It 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."

For 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 life."

The group got up early to work in the kitchen at the Salvation Army shelter. While some scrambled eggs, others chopped hundreds of pounds of potatoes.

"It’s kind of humbling to go downtown and help other people that actually have nothing," says Anthony Cooper, a Texas Tech student.

The 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."

Paige 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.

"It’s 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 homeless now."

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Walsh, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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