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An Out of Classroom Experience
2009-10-26

Students Take to the Streets for a Lesson in Empathy

Some of the participants of the homeless weekend

There are an estimated 150,000 homeless people in Canada, and over the weekend, some compassionate students tried to walk a mile in their shoes. On Friday, October 23, nine students and one professor left Providence College for the streets of Steinbach to live like the homeless for a weekend. The event was hosted by the Student Council’s Social Concerns Committee at Providence to raise awareness and create empathy in the student body by glimpsing the conditions and experiences of the homeless.

The focus on homelessness started earlier in the week with a trip to Siloam Mission in Winnipeg, where they learned about some of the underlying issues that create the larger problem of homelessness in Canada.

Caleb Screpnek, a student on the Social Concerns Committee, said he got the idea for a homeless weekend when researching social concerns programs of other universities in the U.S. “I saw that a few of them had lived, eaten, and slept outside on their campus for a week as a way of raising awareness and simulating the homelessness experience,” and he decided it could work at Providence too. “I wanted to find a way to give the Providence student body as realistic a glimpse as possible into the issue, so simulation seemed to be the most effective way.”

His hope for the students who participated was that they would begin to feel the sense of dependence the homeless have on forces greater than themselves. “When we’re stripped of our structure and support systems, we begin to understand what true dependence looks like. I hope students come away from this simulation with a better understanding of how privileged we are and what needs to be changed to make life better for others.”

Student body president, Paul Oleniuk, was also part of the group who took to the streets last weekend and one thing he noticed right away was the feeling of being an outsider. “People kind of looked at us oddly,” Oleniuk said, “mostly because we were standing around in the cold with backpacks on. When we settled down in a gazebo while all the houses around grew dark, it felt really depressing, like people had forgotten us.”

But the hardest part, Oleniuk said, was trying to sleep in the cold. “I don’t know how people do it,” he said after catching an hour or two of sleep leaning against a post. “I suppose if you have to get used to it, you do.”

Social Concerns Committee member Mark Jensen added that one of the hardest parts was resisting the temptation to pull out his debit card and buy a meal. “When I got back to Providence,” Jensen said, “it seemed so odd that I could choose to have a hot shower, to be able to control the temperature of my room, and sleep in a comfortable bed with blankets.”

But both agreed they would recommend the experience to others. “If anything, for at least a week, you won’t take warm showers and the easy availability of food for granted,” Oleniuk said. But more importantly, they would recommend the experience to others in the hope that they will develop a greater compassion “for people who find themselves with very little control over their present circumstances, and who are often looking for a helping hand, or just for someone to notice that they exist.”

But will one weekend be enough? Screpnek admitted that while it wasn’t enough time to get a full understanding of what it’s like to be homeless, it will still give the participants a glimpse. “This experience is meant to act as a seed as we can now share our insights and experiences with others.” For a better understanding, he said they would have to do more than grit their teeth and wait for the weekend to end, knowing they will be picked up afterwards and brought back to the comfort and safety of the Providence campus.

Professor of Sociology Dr. Dennis Hiebert joined the students on the streets and noted that the weekend would not be a realistic experience of what it means to be homeless, but it would still have value in the long-term for those participating,

Hiebert also noted that it is very hard to generalize about homelessness and while it’s good and helpful to give aid through organizations and soup kitchens, this event is another kind of help that creates empathy in the participant, which has more of a long-term effect and is a difficult thing to learn in a classroom. “The homelessness experience is not charity because we’re not helping anyone by it. The purpose of doing it is to acquire experiential knowledge, to actually try to experience homelessness, and to gain empathy in order to motivate ourselves in the future. It’s a symbolic act of identifying with them; it’s an empathetic act of wanting to know what it feels like.” Hiebert admitted this was a difficult thing to simulate, but still worth exploring, “It changes the way we see and hear and feel the world in the future.”

“If you don’t connect yourself to the issue it’s a very easy problem to ignore,” warned Screpnek. He hopes the students will remain aware of the issues even while at Providence, and the experience will hopefully motivate them to be part of the solution in the future.
 

 
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