UMass Amherst Students Learn About Homelessness

AMHERST, Mass. - Students walking into the course, "Homelessness and Shelter," often enter the classroom with some anxiety, says the Rev. Christopher Carlisle, Episcopal chaplain at the University of Massachusetts. "We''ve all been taught that the homeless are someone to avoid, to avert one''s eyes from, and at best to throw a quarter at." Yet a few months later, the students generally leave with a feeling that "a great deal of homelessness has to do with bad luck, and it has a searing injustice," said Carlisle.

Carlisle''s interest in the phenomenon of homelessness began 13 years ago, when he was asked to participate in the Midnight Run program, which provides food and clothing to the homeless in New York City''s Central Park. "I wasn''t sure I was ready," he admits. "It seemed like an admirable thing - for someone else to do. But it turned out to be an illumination, in every way."

The course on homelessness is a demanding one: "It''s rigorous academically and it''s rigorous personally," said Carlisle. Class requirements include weekly papers, readings such as "Rachel and her Children" by Jonathan Kozol, a semester project, and two hours a week working in one of the local shelters or soup kitchens.

First offered last spring, the course is listed through Commonwealth College, although all UMass students are welcome to enroll. The teachers are Carlisle and United Christian Foundation Chaplain Kent Higgins. Students attend lectures by professors from throughout the University: Carl Nightingale of history speaks on the history of poverty; Gerald Epstein and Samuel Bowles of economics discuss how the economic system allows homelessness to occur; Ellen Pader discusses how building codes and local laws affect the homeless; and Peter Rossi, a retired professor, speaks on the sociological aspects of homelessness.

The semester culminates in a weekend visit to Boston, in which students are hosted by a team of people; some have homes, and some do not. The weekend begins with a tour of the city by one of the homeless people: "We tour their city on their terms, see the city through their eyes, and talk about their experiences," said Carlisle. Although the students distribute several hundred meals, as well as blankets and clothing, the real purpose is to talk with homeless people about their lives. "The students are not only doing something for someone else, but they usually feel that they''ve gained more than they gave," said Carlisle. "It''s a life-changing experience. You can''t help but have your perspective altered. Some of the most important learning we do is in the world, engaged with other people."

NOTE: Christopher Carlisle can be reached at 413/549-5929.