On a recent winter morning, hundreds of volunteers canvassed the city as part of its annual effort to count the homeless population across Chicago. For seven hours they drove the city, block-by-block, until 3 a.m., interviewing people who were experiencing homelessness—while learning from one another along the way.
Among them were nearly 50 faculty, staff and students from the University of Chicago, which has supported the city’s Point-In-Time Homeless Count for the past six years.
“Homeless populations are notoriously undercounted, underrepresented and misunderstood,” said Adrianna Barnett, a fourth-year student in the College, who learned many of the people she talked to were experiencing homelessness for the first time. “Student involvement in the count is important because we experience such incredible privilege, and we should give back to the broader community that’s given us so much in the time we live here.”
Students joined teams made up of staff from social service organizations and volunteers from across the city, including persons who have previously experienced homelessness. The experience was part of Chicago Studies, a College initiative which helps students discover, study, engage with and impact Chicago’s diverse communities.
“We have this goal to engage students with diverse voices and to expose them to interesting vantage points on the city with an emphasis on reciprocal, participatory community-engaged research,” said Chris Skrable, director of Chicago Studies & Experiential Learning in the College. “It’s not merely studying about the city, but learning from and with the city.”
The recruitment effort, led by Chicago Studies and the Office of Civic Engagement, linked students with four South Side community partners: Featherfist, Thresholds South West, A Safe Haven and Olive Branch Mission. These nonprofits provided training and insights garnered from years of frontline assistance.
At times, the University has been the single largest source of volunteers for the homeless count—a broad collaboration between the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services and many citywide organizations. Getting data on the local homeless community provides the basis for federal funding for services, enables resource planning and raises awareness.