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College Students Fight Homelessness in Harvard Square and Beyond

February 10, 2016 :: Admissionado

Harvard Square Homeless Shelter | Admissionado

Homelessness is uncomfortable and destabilizing at the best of times, but especially painful during cold and snowy East Coast winters.

For that reason, students of Harvard University have run the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter every winter since 1983. From November 1 to April 15, the shelter hosts 30 people each night on a two-week or nightly lottery system. Student volunteers also walk the streets, offering sandwiches, tips for open shelter beds, and a listening ear to those sleeping outside in wintry Cambridge.

What’s Admissionado’s stake in the matter? Following last month’s post on the student-run advocacy group Students Organize for Syria, we’re highlighting the great ways in which students across the U.S. contribute to social justice and philanthropy.

In January 2014, 578,424 people were experiencing homelessness, meaning that they were sleeping in a shelter or transitional housing program, or outside. This number has been decreasing since the 2008 recession, but is still huge. Although transitional housing programs that seek to sustainably end homelessness are difficult to run, the provision of a bed and a hot meal is a simple way that students across the country can help.

Expanding the fight

For many years, Harvard Square’s shelter was the only student-run shelter in the country, but recently the shelter has established relationships with other schools and student groups to found similar shelters. One, at Villanova University, is the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP). Like Harvard students, Philadelphia-area college students work throughout the winter to offer shelter and services to the homeless. They also work throughout the year to advocate for policy changes that will help alleviate homelessness in Philly.

In both settings, conversations about the causes and perpetuating factors of homelessness abound. Students who often come from middle and upper class backgrounds are exposed to the concrete challenges of what it means to live without a permanent residence, and learn the valuable lesson that,

“Homelessness is not a noun. There is no such thing as a homeless person. It means that you are a person without a home right now.” – Evans, Wendy Grace. Shelter: Where Harvard Meets the Homeless, 2011.

College students’ unique perspective

The unique perspective of college students brings enthusiasm and idealism into the shelters. Conversations among volunteers and shelter guests are invigorating on both sides, and have lasting impact. Former volunteer and Assistant Professor of Education at Boston University Scott Seider comments, “Students are not patient… they are thirsting for conversations. This adds to the uniqueness of the interactions. I am not saying that enthusiasm can address post-traumatic stress disorder; it is not a cure, and professionals are needed, but it is a different kind of conversation.”

Activism has many forms, of which the action of college students on and around their campuses is only one. But, by joining the country-wide movement to end homelessness, students raise their voices and their metaphorical picket signs to fight an injustice entrenched in American society.

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Know about a student organization or philanthropy we should be featuring? Drop us a note in the comments below, or Tweet at us!

See more posts in this series to get high school community service ideas and inspiration for volunteer work, community service and extracurricular activities for kids.

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