A group of students from The University gained new perspectives on homelessness and privilege as part of the Trading Places poverty simulation experience. The event, which juniors Eric Cross, Nick Longobardi, Genny Francis, Stephanie Biondo and Alyssa Biondo coordinated last semester, was held Jan. 20-25 and competed with significant snowfall. The weather forced leaders to reschedule on a nightly basis, undoing months of planning.
According to Cross, however, these issues did not detract from the experience, due in part to the openness of the students in attendance.
Participants spent two days immersed in an intensive homelessness simulation, which fostered solidarity for the remaining three days of service. The group visited areas in Scranton frequented by those experiencing homelessness, including the public library, St. Francis of Assisi soup kitchen and the Community Intervention Center. Students utilized these resources for food, water and other necessities. In addition, they asked the Department of Welfare for financial assistance. This experience resonated with senior Brian Dolan, who was shocked to learn that many people who need additional help are employed.
“What surprised me was that close to 75 percent of people who use welfare and other poverty resources have some kind of (full-time) or part-time job,” Dolan said.
Students slept outside in a shelter of boxes and a tarp for most of the night, until the snow drove them inside around 1 a.m. They spent the remainder of nights on the floor of the Student Forum. In the morning, they ate a small amount of plain oatmeal and a banana.
Interactions with people who face poverty and homelessness had a profound impact.
“It was so important for the group to experience (the openness of the people they encountered) because it opened our eyes to the humanity of these people,” Cross said. “They could have a real human-to-human connection.”
Dolan expressed the same sentiment. “My favorite part was having conversations with clients at the community intervention center and the soup kitchen, who were able to really show me the reality of poverty,” he said.
In the three days following the simulation, participants volunteered in the locations they had utilized.
Unexpected press coverage initially presented an obstacle. Reporters surprised the event’s organizers when they arrived at the soup kitchen and found cameras awaiting them. Ultimately, the news became an unanticipated blessing.
“We saw (the media) in a positive light as being able to raise awareness of homeless and impoverished populations in the Scranton area,” he said.
The prevalence of poverty in this area may come as a surprise. For example, Dolan said the retreat showed him “how many people (are) in need just a few blocks from The University’s campus.”
Leaders hope to attract more participants next year and extend the invitation to faculty and staff. Cross argues that anyone could benefit from the event, especially those engaged in nationwide or global service.
“We aren’t immune to (poverty) in our own city,” Cross said. “Being able to see this happening in our own backyard would be beneficial to everyone at this university.”
Feb. 13, 2015