Students Gain First-Hand Experience in Homelessness

by Sandy Robson

The nonprofit Students Sharing Coalition unites youth from 14 area high schools in an effort to advocate for the poor.
As the thermometer dipped well below the freezing point on Friday night, January 23, the occupants of Heart's Place Shelter gave thanks for the warm place to stay. However, these residents were not the same as those the facility normally accommodates: they were two dozen high school students who had come to learn what it means to be homeless in Baltimore.

Students from fourteen area public and private schools had come for the January meeting of the Students Sharing Coalition (SSC).

This local nonprofit is aimed at uniting youth from diverse backgrounds in the fight against poverty in Baltimore through both community service and political advocacy. These individuals had been chosen as representatives from their schools and are responsible for motivating their peers to participate in the organization's weekly service learning opportunities, which range from serving the hungry in Our Daily Bread to putting up drywall with Habitat for Humanity. Many had previously volunteered at Heart's Place, located at 2640 St. Paul's Street, but this experience would allow them to better empathize with the people they had helped.

After unpacking their sleeping bags onto the shelter's wooden-frame cots, the students discussed the issues surrounding homelessness. They questioned the veracity of stereotypes, and compared and contrasted their own lives with those of a homeless person.

"I was particularly struck by the idea that these people live lives of impermanence. While I have plans that stretch for years into the future, some of the people that use this shelter aren't sure what's going to happen the next day," says Towson High senior Julia Furlong.

After they had renewed their commitment to assisting Baltimore's 5,000 homeless men, women, and children, the group drew up a plan for action. In addition to fine-tuning their strategies for mobilizing their peers in service learning projects, the students brainstormed ideas for their upcoming trip to Annapolis.

On February 26, hundreds of students, parents, and shelter residents will travel to the state capitol, where they will rally on the steps of the Maryland General Assembly. Then they will meet with representatives in the joint hearing room to discuss legislation affecting the state's poor. This year, they are mainly concerned with preventing budget cuts to social programs as a result of the deficit.

The retreat gave students a new perspective on homelessness, and instilled in them a greater conviction to affect change. Linda Kohler, the executive director of Students Sharing Coalition, says, ""My hope is that this brief experience will rekindle our students' passion for service and help them further develop as mature and knowledgeable citizens who take action to solve problems in their community."

More information on Students Sharing Coalition is available at studentssharing.org.

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This story was published on January 29, 2004.