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Guest Column

Young people learn about the complexities of homelessness

By Guest Columnist JACK HARDIN, co-chair of the Regional Commission on Homelessness and co-founder of the Atlanta-based Rogers & Hardin law firm

As the co-chair of the Regional Commission on Homelessness, I heartily approve of teaching our young people to look beyond stereotypes and to get involved in making our community stronger.

The week of May 23, with only the clothes on their backs, $4 and discarded shoes, middle school students at Paideia School spent one week as homelessness individuals. They actually lived on the streets for one week and tried to survive without shelter, money or any basic necessities.

In an innovative program created and led by Elizabeth Hearn these students meet, serve and get to know homeless individuals. They learn that while much homelessness is caused or exacerbated by poor decisions, the realities of homelessness are compelling human conditions.

Jack Hardin

Participants in past immersion weeks say that the experience changed their outlooks on homelessness and helped them to see the real challenges people on the streets face. They said, “They are people too, just like us.”

This kind of issue-teaching is happening in other ways, too. Another Paideia teacher, Brett Hardin, has created an Urban Institute for high school students from a number of public and private schools that runs for three weeks in the summer.

Students visit homeless facilities like the Gateway Homeless Services Center, meet public officials such as the Mayor, city Council members and others struggling with the problems of an urban community to learn first hand the problems and the solutions being worked.

Working through the United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness, several faculty members of Lovett School including the principal, Billy Peebles, and students participated in commission’s Street to Home outreaches.

The school also hosted a commission’s Celebrate Success event. After Liza McClain, president of the school’s Service Board, participated in an outreach, she selected the commission and Trinity Community Ministries to receive a generous donation from the Student Services Board.

Elementary school children are also engaged on the issue of homelessness in Atlanta. Third graders from The Children’s School, led by Tamara Weinstein, spent one week learning about homelessness and the ways they could help.

To enhance the experience of learning, Tamara Weinstein asked the middle school students from Elizabeth Hearn’s Paideia class to present. Afterward, the elementary school children wrote letters to some community leaders to express their feelings.

Some said they wanted to help anyone facing homelessness by giving them food and water while others said they wanted to help them find shelter and safety. At such an early age, it is quite extraordinary that these children grasp the harsh concepts of homelessness and genuinely want to help.

Individual students can also make difference in this issue.

Another student from the Lovett School, Kaki Pope, chose to use commission’s work on homelessness for her senior project. She visited several housing agencies and shelters, including the Gateway Center. At the Gateway Center, Kaki captured several people’s stories and pictures and says she was excited to have a picture with a story attached to it.

After she went on an outreach, she said in her blog, “Being a part of the outreach was enlightening and inspiring. I highly recommend going, and I hope I am able to again very soon.”

Last year, during United Way’s Shoebox Project, a DeKalb County student and Girl Scot set the bar extraordinarily high. Michelle Gillig collected enough toiletries to fill 150 shoeboxes. Her donation was the largest Atlanta’s United Way had ever received. The shoeboxes go to homelss women and children in need of basic necessitites — toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc.

The commission applauds these innovative programs and these creative educators.

Any experience that pushes beyond stereotypes allows students to see the humanity in homeless people is education in the finest sense of the word. We are grateful that our community’s future leaders are learning more about the needs of the community in these well thought out and compassionate programs.


  1. Charles Edwards May 31, 2011 11:31 am

    It is LAUDABLE that we have teachers encouraging our children to get first hand experience with some of the issues related to homelessness. This is a great first step to enriching a child’s understanding of the distinction between the value of a person and one’s circumstances. It helps our chilldren develop a sense of caring for people regardless of the person’s circumstances. The natural response from them is to provide services to help alliviate the immediate needs of people who are homeless and this is wonderful. However, it would be an even richer educational experience for our more mature children to explore development of sustainable solutions to eradicating homelessness where possible, and alliviating the pain of homelessness if it is a chronic condition. The Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency can help schools develop this initiative if there is an interest.Report

  2. Burroughston Broch May 31, 2011 12:36 pm

    There is so much wrong with the picture painted by this post.
    The schools (at least the public schools) say they don’t have enough time and money to teach students the core curriculum because they’re teaching to the next standardized test. They graduate many students who aren’t literate.
    On the other hand, the schools are spending time and money to teach enablement of the homeless, many of whom are totally responsible for their own predicaments.
    The end result will be more illiterate high school graduates who want to enable the homeless and perhaps join them. This is exactly what our society does not need.Report

  3. Reality Check May 31, 2011 1:38 pm

    Actually, BB, your post shows why this sort of learning is important. The problem of homelessness is complex, and that’s what this program is trying to teach students. It also provides them the opportunity to look at a problem in a different way instead of simply clinging to previous notions about a problem. Your email is a good example of the latter. Only one public school student was even mentioned in this article, yet your response uses your view of public schools and what they are lacking as your main argument against this program. You need to try harder or maybe just think harder.Report

  4. Burroughston Broch May 31, 2011 8:09 pm

    @ Reality Check
    The post mentioned both private and public schools, and the troubles of the public schools are completely relevant, particularly since there are so many more public school graduates than those from private schools. It seems that the private school teachers are more concerned about a social conscience this year.

    Homelessness, like other social problems, is portrayed by those with a social conscience (who do not wish a solution) as so complex that a solution is impossible. You seem to be one of them. The simple truth is that the majority of the homeless are in their state because of choice, substance abuse or mental incapacity. If it is their choice, then they chose their bed and they can lie in it. If it is because of substance abuse and they will not kick the habit after attending substance abuse treatment, then they chose their bed and they can lie in it. If it is because of mental incapacity then they should be in protective custody. Teaching children to further enable the homeless is not a solution.

    We are told by the socially conscious to be kind like nature. I watched the kindness of nature over the weekend at Lake Hartwell and here’s how it went. There were four Canadian goslings and three of the four minded their parents while the fourth constantly strayed. On Friday and Saturday the father and mother herded the wayward gosling back into the fold every time he strayed. On Sunday the wayward gosling strayed again and this time the parents didn’t retrieve him. Six hours later the parents and the three sensible goslings were swimming around the lake and the wayward gosling was gone, probably a meal for a turtle.Report

  5. Warrior May 31, 2011 9:07 pm

    @B Broch

    It should be noted that the entire definition of addiction indicates that substance abuse is no longer a choice.
    Sure this lifestyle begins with a bad choice, but, believe me, by the time someone is sleeping under a bridge and standing in a soup kitchen…choice is a distant memory.
    It should also be noted that there is no such practice as “protective custody” to accomodate the homeless mentally ill. Current policy dictates that a person may only be hospitalized involuntarily if he is an imminent danger to himself and others. They have to actually state (convincingly) that they plan to do harm to themselves or someone else! They can only be held for observation for 72 hours before being released if they do not choose to remain in the hospital and if there are no suicidal and/ or homicidal statements.The deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill (Reagan Administration) emptied the hospitals only to flood the other institutions such as jails and homeless shelters. This is because people who advocate “protective custody” would never be in favor of helping to support that effort through taxation. You can’t have it both ways.
    The homeless are human beings…they are our family members (the ones that you won’t let come and live with you) and our childhood friends. They are often substance abusers…so are many non-homeless citizens. They are mentally ill…so are many non-homeless citizens. The problem is that we have become so selfish that we can’t see the connection between these people and us.
    If you want to be selfish and ego centered, that is your right as a human being…but don’t hide behind politics!Report

  6. Burroughston Broch May 31, 2011 10:29 pm

    I am not hiding behind anything, let alone politics. I am standing together with reason.

    I have family members, friends and acquaintances who have overcome addictions ranging from cigarettes to alcohol to illegal drugs, so don’t give me your line that addiction cannot be overcome at any stage of life. It is not true. My mother was a 2-3 pack/day cigarette chain smoker for 50 years and quit cold turkey in one day. If you must, you can. I helped some of them break their addictions, but they did it.

    The regulations about protective custody of the mentally ill could be changed by the General Assembly and the Congress at any time. To my mind, it is cheaper on society to put a severely mentally ill person in protective custody than it is to let them roam the streets, panhandle, and haunt homeless shelters.

    Teaching school children to enable the homeless is utter nonsense and shameful.Report

  7. I wouldn’t necessarily say that these students are being taught to “enable” the homeless as almost all of these homeless people would more than likely be homeless anyway whether they receive token help from good samaritans or not. It’s not like people living on the streets make the decision to be homeless and live out in the elements because they might one day luck up and get some free shoes and toiletries from some empathetic schoolchildren. No one in their right mind consciously makes the decision to be out on the street as people usually end up living outside when circumstances in their lives have gotten beyond their control.

    It should also be noted that while many homeless people find themselves out on the street because of mental illness or substance abuse that has spun completely out of control due to poor choices, not everyone is out on the street because of substance abuse, mental illness or laziness. Some people end up homeless because of events in their lives that are completely out of their control whether it be job loss, cost-of-living, domestic physical abuse, homeless parents, etc.

    While I wouldn’t necessarily encourage middle schoolers and minors to go live out in the rough-and-tumble world of the streets, there’s nothing wrong with children and students exploring a dark issue and overly-persistant problem such as homelessness that is such an exceptionally large part of this community as homelessness ties directly into so many other troubling issues like substance abuse, domestic abuse, prostitution, forced child prostitution, the sex trade, the drug trade, human trafficking, etc.

    (As an aside, it should be noted that Atlanta is known to be one of the worst cities on the planet for child prostitution, forced prostitution, human trafficking and the sex trade. It should also be noted that Atlanta has one of the largest homeless populations in North America outside of New York City. In fact, part of the reason why Atlanta’s homeless population is so extraordinarily large is because NYC sends every homeless person that it can to Atlanta through a little-publicized program that aims to reduce and, if possible, eradicate the homeless problem in NYC by shipping it away elsewhere via Greyhound bus. Basically NYC officials tell many of their homeless people that they can’t stay in the city and give them a bus ticket to the out-of-town destination of their choice, a “choice” that happens to be Atlanta for most homeless people pressured to leave town by NYC officials because of Atlanta’s reputation of being a “mecca” for the homeless. Hence, New York City’s mammoth homeless problem is now Atlanta’s mammoth and increasingly nearly insurmountable homeless problem.)

    Tie in other issues like substance abuse, domestic abuse, human trafficking, the forced sex trade and forced child prostitution that can be gateways to homelessness and you have an issue that is a little more complex and not quite as simple as someone actively choosing to be homeless because of the possibility of being given a free meal, blanket, shoes at someone else’s expense. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with students at exclusive private schools like Lovett and Paideia getting a first-hand lesson on how truly blessed they are to have the opportunities they have and how not everyone is as blessed as they are to have the opportunity of being afforded an education that is basically a fast-track to an Ivy League-type level of higher education.

    Though I wouldn’t go as far as having the kids live out on the dangerous and unpredictable streets of Atlanta for a week (though the kids who do live out there for a week will certainly be MUCH more grateful and thankful for what they have if they weren’t already before), it can’t hurt for the future leaders of this city and this world to learn to have a little empathy, compassion (though there should definitely be limits to that empathy and compassion) and social awareness of an issue that is a very major, major part of this and many other major cities’ “identity” and social make-up.Report

  8. Melanie C June 1, 2011 4:38 am

    I have a son who just completed Elizabeth’s course. Since coming back home and experiencing first hand his profound realization of the complexities of the human condition and his potential role in that (at 14 years old! An immeasurable gift) I can only express gratitude at the foresight and positive impact such a program has to make the kind of changes we each need to embody in the world to truly make the kind of difference that it calls for.

    Change is always HARD and doing things a new way threatens and scares us. The more narrow our view perhaps the tighter we cling to justifying our stance. That is how is seems to work. As his mother I could have easily found a million reasons why such a course is NOT a good idea for my child. I withheld the fear and trusted the opportunity offered. Now I can only say my son’s amazing insight into both individual choice and crushing unpredictable circumstances in the many situations he encountered in the homeless stories he witnessed and his subsequent response of empathy AND incredible sense of what right action would be can only be one of the best teaching experiences he may ever have. am very grateful such teachers and programs exist.Report

  9. Cal Rains June 2, 2011 12:19 pm

    A very thought provoking article. Although a very busy world class attorney, Jack finds time to devote to the plight of the homeless. Kudos to Jack HardinReport

  10. WoW_Account August 8, 2011 12:50 pm

    I was made homeless when I was a teen, and I can tell you, its not a great story to go by. But if you keep at things as an independant individual you will be successful. It just takes some good ideas and an upbeat spirit to make you’re way through everything.Report

  11. WoW_Account August 8, 2011 12:50 pm

    I was made homeless when I was a teen, and I can tell you, its not a great story to go by. But if you keep at things as an independant individual you will be successful. It just takes some good ideas and an upbeat spirit to make you’re way through everything.Report


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