Homeless, Not Hopeless

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Lisa M. Weinbaum used a $2,000 Teaching Tolerance grant to help her students deepen their understanding of equity and social justice issues.

Before Lynn Middle School teacher Lisa M. Weinbaum's "Homeless but not Hopeless" project, her 7th- and 8th-grade students made fun of the homeless. They thought panhandling was easy and that homeless people were simply lazy and might be "faking it."

The irony is that 70 percent of the students at Lynn Middle School are poor.

Weinbaum thought her students, as well as the greater Las Cruces, N.M., community, had a lot to learn about compassion and the roots of homelessness. Nearly 500 homeless people seek shelter each night in Doña Ana County, where Lynn Middle School is located. The city had just passed an ordinance sweeping indigent people from the streets, leading some to think the homelessness problem had been solved. Weinbaum knew better.

"The dispossessed still starve, and no one knows or cares to know," Weinbaum wrote in her Teaching Tolerance grant application.

Weinbaum's goal was to challenge and debunk stereotypes of homeless families, to recognize and acknowledge the wider social forces tied to poverty, and to foster empathy within her school and community.

"We are all responsible for one another and not just to ourselves," she wrote.

Everyone Benefits
Teaching Tolerance awarded Weinbaum a $2,000 grant that helped her raise students' awareness about the severity of homelessness.

She used the money to purchase supplemental reading material that examines homelessness from contrasting points of view. The funds also helped finance transportation to a homeless shelter and a celebratory gathering, featuring a meal and poetry readings, at the end of the term.

The grant also helped defray the cost of printing and binding a student-written anthology of oral histories, essays, poems and stories honoring the homeless of Las Cruces. The anthology includes moving letters to members of the homeless community, reality-based fiction, a section specifically for homeless children, and appeals to the community to do something to help those people experiencing homelessness.

The anthologies were sold for $5 each at the annual Las Cruces Renaissance Faire, and all proceeds -- $400 total -- benefited the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, a local shelter.

Students made a series of field trips to the homeless shelter to bring donations, tour the facilities and meet with members of the homeless population. During the term, students combined analysis, research and personal interviews with homeless people to produce the anthology.

"We read a number of things before going," Weinbaum said. "We explained that many of them are veterans, that they might have emotional or psychological issues."

Later, to demonstrate how homelessness affects death as well as life, Weinbaum took her students to a neglected cemetery strewn with trash, with only cinderblocks as markers. From there the project took on new meaning.

Weinbaum says her students were "appalled by the cemetery's deplorable conditions" and "vowed to clean it."

Writing letters to the editor of a local newspaper and calling on elected officials and others to address the neglect, and adding their own hard work to the cleanup effort, the students reclaimed the forgotten cemetery.

When teaching through the lens of social justice issues, Weinbaum says she finds her students are more engaged and motivated. "The kids buy into it, this sense of fairness, what's right and what's wrong," she said. "They know what's 'messed up,' to put it in their words."

The "Homeless but not Hopeless" project taught the students that their voices do matter. They learned that, while it's a sad reality that some people live and die in poverty, that doesn't mean they, as young people, have to accept the conditions of social inequality.

"Most student projects are focused around feeding homeless people," says Michael Stoops, acting director of the National Homeless Coalition. "So the activism of [these] students is indeed unique. I hope [this] project can be a model nationwide."

Teacher Reflection: List three labels that apply to you. For example, one could list "female," "special education teacher," and "Christian." What parts of your identity did you leave off your list? Why? What was listed first? Why? Now, think of your students. List labels commonly applied to each of them. Also list a special interest or talent for each student. How is your identity similar to and different from those of your students? Identify three curriculum changes or new teaching strategies that you will use to bridge differences, empower students and honor all identities.

Professional Development: Use this essay as the foundation for an in-service activity about labels. Working in small groups, teachers should brainstorm a list of labels that are applied to students in your school or district, i.e. "at risk," "gifted" or "ESL." As a group, discuss: What is the "picture in your head" when you think of each term? What are the positive, negative or neutral connotations for the labels? How do the labels benefit or harm those to whom they apply — and those to whom they do not apply? How can we ensure that our school expands possibilities for all students, rather than limits them?