Student organization enacts powerful change against homelessness, stigma
Homeless Outreach through Prevention and Education, a student organization founded at UC Davis in 2016, has a mission of assisting those experiencing homelessness and educating others about homelessness through project-based solutions that come from the collective input of all its members. The organization receives the majority of its funding through the Sheila Kar Health Foundation.
Projects have included gathering donations of dental hygiene equipment paired with instruction flyers, computer literacy classes and GED tutoring to increase the chances of those experiencing homelessness to find a job. During the winter, the Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter provides a warm place to stay.
Sarah Shandy, a fifth-year biochemistry and molecular biology major and co-president of HOPE, felt that the sense of agency she experiences allows her and the team to make a difference.
“We all have a part in the club, and I really like that,” Shandy said. “I can have a real impact on the club.”
HOPE understands that it’s important to educate those who aren’t experiencing homelessness as well because it facilitates better understanding and communication — which leads to more action.
Julia Nguyen, a third-year global disease biology major and outreach coordinator for HOPE, described a way the organization is trying to start this conversation.
“We had a whole presentation about the language we use when we talk about homelessness,” Nguyen said. “When we talk about the individuals that we meet, we refer to them as people who are experiencing homelessness [instead of homeless people]. We hope that through language our peers can start to see that homelessness doesn’t define the person.”
Not defining those experiencing homelessness by unfortunate events that have led them to their circumstances is the first step toward humanizing them as individuals — some of whom have been forced to choose between paying for doctors’ appointments, medication, textbooks or paying rent.
“In high school, I signed up for a park cleanup,” Nguyen said. “The woman leading the cleanup was affiliated with the city, and she [led] us down to a homeless encampment. She said to start clearing everything, and I was really confused because there was a whole community there with tents, bikes and other personal belongings. I remember digging up an ID, and the woman told me to just throw it on the pile.”
While many students cannot give their time or funds to those experiencing homelessness, there is something priceless and more meaningful they can give — recognition.
“They really just want to be recognized when you’re walking on the street,” Shandy said. “Sometimes they’re holding signs and people just look away and not make eye contact. Just say hi or smile.”
Nguyen also advises against not acknowledging.
“The norm is to turn your back when you see someone on the street because there’s this awkwardness of not knowing what to do with yourself […],” Nguyen said.
Tuition spikes at UC Davis have forced some students to experience homelessness by living out of their cars, and HOPE is seeking to further their outreach to that population.
“We haven’t come into contact with very many, but by getting our message out there, hopefully, we can offer them whatever we can,” said Daniel Lam, a fourth-year neurology, physiology and behavior major and co-president of HOPE.
HOPE at UC Davis goes beyond one-time acts of kindness and is always welcoming new members. Brandon Aguilar, a fourth-year biochemistry and molecular biology major and historian for HOPE, shared the benefits he experienced after joining the club.
“Joining the club allowed me to learn more about their lives and their stories,” Aguilar said. “Being able to have that opportunity to really interact with them, you really start to understand that these people are coming from a different background, but that doesn’t mean they’re less human.”
HOPE at UC Davis hosts quarterly meetings. Information about joining and making a difference can be found on its Facebook page.
Written by: Josh Madrid – firstname.lastname@example.org