Swat students operate homeless shelter

Swarthmore students volunteer at the SREHUP homeless shelter in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of Daniel Cho)

This fall, a group of students from Swarthmore, in addition to both undergraduate and graduate students from six other colleges, kick-started the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP), a budding initiative dedicated to providing shelter during the coldest months of the year for the homeless and the socially underprivileged in the heart of the city.

Students from Temple, Drexel, Penn, Villanova, Saint Joseph’s and Delaware Community College, along with 25 students from Swarthmore, participate as volunteers in maintaining and welcoming guests into the shelter, which is currently situated underneath the Old First Reformed United Church of Christ in Philadelphia on North 4th and Race Street.

“As the emphasis of the initiative is on its student-run nature, almost everything concerning the day-to-day maintenance of the shelter is the responsibility of us students,” said Dan Cho ’13, a Swarthmore student instrumental in planning and executing this program. Such responsibilities include cooking, serving dinner and breakfast, socializing with the guests and cleaning the facilities.

At present, 30 men and no women reside in the shelter, all of whom were selected by the Bethesda Project. The Bethesda Project is a more expansive undertaking begun in 1979 to aid homeless people in Philadelphia – and thus has been instrumental in the development of SREHUP, acting as the initiative’s partner and adviser.

Development of SREHUP began this past summer, when various students including Cho and Stephanie Sena, a Professor of History at Villanova University, pieced together the logistics for a housing unit near the Ridge Center in Philadelphia. Approximately 300 homeless people currently reside in this area, where the students involved in SREHUP as a primary hub of homelessness in Philadelphia and therefore a suitable starting point. “I met Professor Sena at the Swarthmore Fair after the spring semester, and throughout the summer we maintained a dialogue to plan this project,” Cho said.

Through the help of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, which currently sponsors the project, SREHUP worked toward an official opening night on November 1, 2011, when guests were welcome in the shelter. In the months beforehand, volunteers took part in training workshops endorsed by various other shelter organizations in Philadelphia, the topics of which ranged from cooking safety to advocacy work and fundraising. Other preparations included discussions involving logistical concerns and the consequent drafting of a policy book that sets standard guidelines concerning the project’s maintenance.

SREHUP is based on a similar project called the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, a student-run initiative begun by Harvard students and leaders from surrounding churches in 1983. But despite the key similarities between the Harvard project and SREHUP, Cho took note of fundamental differences. “The Harvard model … implements a lottery system that effectively changed the people in the shelter everyday. We decided that that would not be in our best interests, as we want to instill a more permanent influence on our guests and develop a kind of tight-knit community amongst ourselves. We want to do more than just put on a band-aid,” Cho said.

Students volunteering at the shelter presently work during one of two shifts: the dinner shift, which lasts from 5 to 9 p.m., involves cooking or collecting food donations from other nearby restaurants for dinner, serving the food to the guests and cleaning up afterwards. The overnight shift, which lasts from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., involves socializing with the guests, settling them down for the night and serving breakfast at 5 a.m. the next morning. Also provided is a shuttle service to the Bethesda Project.

Several Swarthmore students who have taken part in the project have identified it as a transformative experience. “I was at the shelter on its opening night, when we were addressed by representatives from the Bethesda Project and a reverend at the church,” Anna Sagaser ’13 said.

“It initially felt uncomfortable to meet people with such a huge difference in privilege because I didn’t know how to deal with that kind of disparity. But being able to overcome that and bridge that gap, to connect on a human level, has been eye-opening. I look forward to formally volunteering for the shelter in the coming weeks,” she said.

Vija Lietuvninkas ’14, who has already volnteered for a few shifts, also characterized the project as having a learning curve.

“The experience was very humanizing on many different levels … Interacting with the guests has made me see and respect them as human beings, which is not how people usually treat them. Playing Scrabble with Earl, one of the guests, and realizing that he’s ten times better at mental math than me quickly brought me back to reality. You begin to see that these men are real people, with aspirations and ups and downs just like the rest of us,” Lietuvninkas said.

As this project is still in its infancy, its future plans mainly involve tightening its logistics and reviewing its current structure as well as the enhancement of existing programs. One particularly interesting development is SREHUP’s partnership with renowned mural mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, creator of Philadelphia’s famed Magic Gardens, on his latest art project. Other developments include the installation of laptops for the cultivation of technical skills, plans for a dental program as well as yoga and meditation workshops for volunteers and guests alike. The project also plans to host fundraisers such as bake sales and donation drives for the sake of increased awareness and more stable resources.

SREHUP also plans to open an all-women’s shelter on January 2, 2012 at Arch Street United Methodist Church with Project H.O.M.E., a non-profit organization with similar aims to those of the Bethesda Project and SREHUP; and an LGBT shelter with Foyer of Philadelphia, an organization specifically dedicated to aiding homeless LGBT youth. The location and opening date of the LGBT shelter is still under discussion.

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