Learning from the city: Students gain new perspectives on Chicago’s homeless

Chicago Studies, Civic Engagement collaboration draws volunteers from UChicago community

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: FeatherfistThresholds South WestA 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.

More than just ‘boots-on-the-ground,’ UChicago students both brought and gained new perspectives. “As a practitioner you sometimes need fresh eyes, fresh thinking and outside-the-box ideas,” said Steven Saunders, a senior case manager who has worked at Featherfist for 25 years. “Some things I may have missed because I would carry on the way I always have. But the University of Chicago students bring ways to see, think and react differently.”

He recalled one student who, after volunteering a few years in a row, saw and recognized a homeless person who Saunders didn’t remember. The man recognized the student, too, and became comfortable talking about services that could help him transition off the street, whereas previously he had declined.

“This person felt comfortable talking to the student. When they recognize you, they’re more willing to engage,” said Saunders. “That’s a heck of a way to know you’re making an impact on the streets at two o’clock in the morning.”

In the coming months, Chicago Studies will partner with the University Community Service Center and the Chicago Coalition on Homelessness on a campus lecture with speakers who have previously experienced homelessness. This spring, the program also will devote a session to the study of homelessness, led by faculty and academic institutes whose research and writing explore the issue from different disciplines.

Skrable noted that many students have participated in the effort for multiple years, and often come back to help after they graduate. Barnett understands why.

“Getting out of Hyde Park and listening to a diverse set of voices is always a good thing,” she said. “Having in-depth conversations with, and learning from, people who are different from you and who you wouldn’t normally get to hear is good for the soul.”

—Adapted from a story that first appeared on the Civic Engagement website.