My middle school students had started to use words like “bum,” “creeper,” and “hobo” to describe people who are homeless in our city. To my eighth-graders, it was comic relief.
Through our classes, we often venture into the community for field work. In our travels, we sit next to, walk by and even exchange words with people who are homeless. Despite this frequent interaction, it is difficult for my students to muster compassion for people living on the streets.
I decided to address this abject dehumanization directly. My co-teacher and I invited representatives from two activist groups to come and speak to our class. These individuals were advocates and members of the homeless population.
We prepared the students by having them read a couple of recent newspaper articles about homelessness. Students also wrote honestly about stereotypes and preconceptions that they have and what they think leads to someone losing their home. Finally, we asked them to prepare a few questions for our guests.
When our visitors arrived, they definitely stood out. As they waited outside the room for class to begin, one of my students rushed around the corner and whispered to me, “There are creepy people in the hallway.” But once our guests introduced themselves and began to talk, the energy changed.
Each visitor told a unique own story of becoming homeless. They spoke honestly and with emotion, showing patience and respect towards the students who listened in rapt silence. We heard from Joe, whose mother was homeless when he was born. He’s been struggling with poverty ever since. Grace told us about how she sold her house in Arizona and traveled to Portland with hopes of finding a better job. Instead, she ended up living on the streets. Justin came home from a tour in Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was unable to hold down a job. Homelessness followed.
We learned about the challenges of being “invisible” in society and how hard it is to get a job if a prospective employer knows you don’t have a place to live. They told us about laws in our city that make it illegal to sleep on the street and about the dangers of sleeping outside. We learned that they preferred the term “houseless” because home is where the heart is and they are not without heart.
Next, we split up into smaller groups and the students had a chance to ask more questions.
The advocates invited us to come eat lunch at a café downtown that serves free meals, giving us a large stack of meal tickets. Once our guests left, I was rushed by a group of students telling me how amazing the experience was for them. One girl who rides the streetcar every day and frequently uses the word “hobo” as a comic way to describe people who are homeless, seemed especially moved.
“Can we please go have lunch with them?”
A few other students echoed her request. A trip to the café was not in our plans for the end of the school year, but now I think it will have to be.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.