April 1, 2014

Helping the Homeless

UMass student creates resource advocacy program

"Community Service has always been a part of my life," says Shirin Hakim ’14, and it should come as no surprise that her Commonwealth Honors College senior capstone course project is also service related. She has created and implemented a student-run resource advocate program to help Amherst homeless people.

The idea for the program came to Hakim during her junior year domestic exchange program with Harvard while she was working in a Boston area homeless shelter. That idea evolved into the creation of the program the following semester while interning at Craig's Door shelter in Amherst.

"During that time I invited [UMass junior] Maggie Spring to join my team and we spent three to four nights a week volunteering at the shelter," she says. "I created an online information storage system to keep track of guest progress throughout the semester."

"At the end of the semester I decided to transform this into a large-scale project and make it my senior thesis," she says. "I thought it would be great to get more students involved because they are more familiar with technology and applications."

She spent the summer further developing the guest database system, and teamed up with Amherst College student and Craig's Doors staffer Christine Miranda to recruit students for their new program.

They plastered flyers around both campuses to attract students and 35 answered their call. After interviewing all 35, they selected and trained 20 (14 from UMass Amherst, 6 from Amherst College) who were all ready to start when the shelter opened November 1.

Students work two hours a night, one night per week, performing intake interviews, registering new guests and tracking progress made toward achieving goals. They also attend weekly case-support meetings.

"We learn about the needs and wants of the guests and refer them to services in the area," says Hakim. The students help connect shelter guests with local resources for food, jobs, housing, healthcare, transportation, and any other needs they have.

"We provide services," she says, "but, in turn, we receive so much. The lessons we learn are priceless."

The pilot program was a huge success and in January it became an official program of Craig’s Doors, and Hakim is happy to report that all 20 original student volunteers returned for the spring semester.

As Hakim looks toward graduation in May, she is thinking about the future of the program and exploring how the experience can be developed into a class or internship.