Penny for your thoughts: Students who have experienced homelessness in the past earn their way into college

The misunderstandings surrounding (and sometimes misguided attempts at assisting) the homeless are many:

“We really want you to work so you won’t have to need these benefits anymore.”

“Poverty is a choice.”

“The only place I run into homeless people is on the streets.”

“Homeless people are stuck in their situation.”

But many people who have experienced homelessness in the past saw the light at the end of the tunnel of education. Indeed, studies have shown that earning power is often tied to education. It is sometimes called ”the path out of poverty,” as Participant #31 in the Voices of Homelessness Oral History project put succinctly.

The Voices of Homelessness Oral History project seeks to use grants and other funding sources to create video documentation of the stories of St. Kate’s students who have experienced housing insecurity in the past. The project was started by Louise Edwards-Simpson, an associate professor who teaches history, geography and political science. Her background in the aforementioned subjects has prepared her well for presenting on the history of housing insecurity, displacement of persons and politics behind why people become homeless. She is able to pass on this knowledge to her student workers, some of which have experienced homelessness in the past. But not all of them are completely comfortable discussing a difficult past.

“There is still a really big stigma about what it is to be homeless,” says Participant #38. “And I’m not very open about talking about it.”

Edwards-Simpson understands the difficulty of getting students to talk about their homelessness experiences and of getting a representative sample of the general population.

“We didn’t set out to, but because St. Kate’s is historically a women’s college…for our community the story is very gendered.” Edwards-Simpson said. “We depended on people volunteering to participate. So we’re open to anyone, but from this community it was mostly women.”

The project has been deposited into St. Kate’s Special Collections and Archives. Some of the transcribed interviews are up in the digital archive Sophia. Most but not all of the interviews are available; some subjects have opted for restricted access for a certain point of time so that their oral history is not available until after they graduate.

While the clock begins ticking from the moment of the person’s interview, the restricted access oral histories will not be available for viewing until 2017, roughly one college generation from now. Those who have agreed to have their stories available during their attendance at St. Kate’s also receive a degree of privacy protection: professors who are participants in the oral history project are identified by first name only, and students are identified only by first initial. The need for “authentic historical sources” and privacy juxtapose one another on such a sensitive topic.

The Center for Women on the St. Paul campus makes a habit of serving as a platform of discussion on research and creative endeavors such as the oral history project. The Women’s Studies and Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity Bag Lunch Discussion Series (so named because of its occurrence typically over the lunch hour) is hosted by the Center for Women. The center kicked off the bag lunch series this year by highlighting the Voices of Homelessness project in order to educate the St. Kate’s community about the realities of its own community members. The bag lunch discussions serve as a platform for current research and creative endeavors primarily in the St. Kate’s community but with contributions from the surrounding community as well.

The program coordinator of the center, Sia Vang, encourages students to approach their professors and ask if attending a bag lunch hosted by the Center for Women could count for extra credit.

“It’s about food, it’s about community, it’s about really interesting, sometimes pretty focused research,” Vang said. “But they’re all just engaging because it exposes you to many new things.”

The St. Kate’s Bag Lunch Discussions and other similar opportunities subtly pay homage to the homelessness that has been experienced among the institution’s ranks. Another option is the Homelessness Immersion trip to Denver, Colorado, offered every spring through Campus Ministry, which combines service learning with seminar-type educational experiences to give students a more holistic view of what contributes to and causes homelessness.

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