A Cross-Disciplinary Investigation of Homelessness

Statistics and ethics students collaborate on research, field work, and activism for their regional homelessness projects.
Mr. Meyer’s statistics students worked with the students from Mr. Carney’s Contemporary Ethical Issues class on this project. “The mission is to connect math with life issues: current events, international relations, moral issues,” said Mr. Meyer. Mr Carney wanted to focus on group work, critical thinking, creativity, and incorporating the Thacher ideals of thoughtfulness and kindness into the project. This was the third joint project for these teachers and was unique in that it was the first time students had time away from other classes to perform field work.

Field work was a key component of the project, which strove to answer these questions:
  • Why is there a problem?
  • What are the biggest relevant issues at present?
  • What are outlooks and recommendations?
Another key piece was an activism component. The five groups of students focused on different geographic areas: Ojai, the nearby cities of Ventura and Santa Barbara, the state of California, and the U.S. The activism for each area differed.

The Ojai group volunteered at the local homeless shelter and wrote a letter to the Ojai City Council with suggestions for better support of the local homeless population, including free TB tests, so they can be admitted to the shelter at night.

After visiting the Ventura County Sheriff Department to gain an understanding of the role of the police in relation to the homeless population, the Ventura group volunteered at the Project Understanding food pantry and helped with the point-in-time count of homeless people in the area. The point-in-time count is an annual tally of individuals and families experiencing homelessness on a given day. Volunteers visit places where homeless people are known to congregate, survey them, and distribute helpful items like warm socks or gloves. Stephanie ’19 was part of the U.S. focused group, but helped with the count. “The homeless count was unlike anything I have experienced before,” she said.The amount of gratitude each person I spoke to expressed over receiving a simple pair of socks showed me the true value of what we were doing. I met such a variety of people, and was touched by their willingness to share about themselves—some even expressing how happy it made them to have someone to talk to. I think this experience will alter the way I interact with the homeless population from now on, and also my empathy for the situation they are in.”

The students in the Santa Barbara group volunteered for the point-in-time count in that area and wrote a letter to the Editor of the Santa Barbara Independent sharing their observations and suggestions.

Campus donut sales generated funds the California group donated to Community Housing Partnership in San Francisco. An award-winning nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless people secure housing and become self-sufficient, the organization develops supportive residential properties and provides property management services. It owns, manages and/or provides support services to 17 buildings—a total of over 1,300 units. The four-person group held a “snack bar” here at school, selling donuts to our sweet-loving students and raised $180 dollars for the non-profit.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness was the beneficiary of the efforts by the U.S. focused group. They organized a letter-writing campaign (which generated 150 letters) to members of the House and Senate asking for additional support for the council. “Launching a letter-writing campaign in the midst of a government shutdown was an interesting experience, as it really allowed us to understand the effects of the shutdown and its unintended consequences,” wrote Xavier ’19. He felt the entire project was eye-opening, “During my research, the most surprising part was learning about how stigmatized homelessness is in the U.S. when compared to other countries. It seems that there are various pre-conceptions in our society that in many ways inhibit progress in resolving this problem. This unit and our research had a profound impact on how I now view the issue.”

Across the board, the students saw housing-first initiatives as the most viable solution to the issue of homelessness. Yes, there is a shortage of shelter beds in cities, states, and the nation, but one group noted that “shelters don’t solve the problem, they only postpone it.” “Integrating these two subjects was as lively and stimulating an exercise for Mr. Carney and me as it was for the students,” said Mr. Meyer. “The culminating presentations, in which each group collaborated to present everything from compelling statistical summaries to remarkably emotional ‘indelible’ recollections of what they'd experienced put a great cap on this unit.”
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