High School Class Studies Homelessness and Poverty
by Jane Califf
Adrienne Sciutto taught high school social studies for many years in San Francisco. She knew that many of her students feared or did not have enough respect for homeless people and others who line up at soup kitchens. To remedy this, she decided to take her government and economic classes to visit St. Anthony Foundation, an organization located in one of the poorest sections of San Francisco, the Tenderloin District.1
St. Anthony offers an amazing array of services to the poor and has a strong advocacy program. It is a model for what our local, state and national governments should be doing. Its mission is in part: “…to feed, heal, shelter, clothe, lift the spirits of those in need, and create a society in which all persons flourish. We are committed to providing the poor of San Francisco with basic needs and services as a gateway to reclaiming their sense of dignity and to progressing towards stability.”2
Their definition of the “poor” encompasses people who have slipped through the safety net: veterans, seniors, the working poor, homeless and low-include residents, recent immigrants, recent parolees and the mentally and addictively ill.
Highlights of their programs include:
St. Anthony Dining Room where they serve nearly a million meals each year.
A Free Clothing Program with high quality clothes for all ages and for job seekers can help “improve personal presentation to help clients secure and maintain employment;” a multilingual staff “welcomes guests in a store-like environment…”
A Free Medical Clinic where approximately 90% of Clinic patients earn less than $10,000 a year and 25% are homeless.
A Social Work Center: “One-on-one counseling allows social workers to craft step-by-step action plans for client to gain and maintain stabilization.”
The Tenderloin Tech Lab, the Tenderloin’s only technology center specializing in adult computer and employment skills training, which aids nearly 1,000 homeless and low-income clients each year.
The Father Alfred Center, the city’s only licensed year-long residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
The Madonna Senior Residence which provides 51 senior women with a safe and supportive home.
The need for these services is great. The poverty statistics for the Tenderloin District are frightening:
One in two adults lack resources to provide enough food for themselves or their families.
50% of Tenderloin residents earn less than $20,000 a year in a city where it costs over $28,000 for an individual to merely survive.
More that 5,000 residents live in residential hotels; many are seniors or families who share an 8x10 ft. room without a kitchen or private bath.
Rent payments alone consume 75 – 100% of their limited or fixed income.
The strength of the St Anthony Foundation, especially for one or more school visits, is that they do not just provide services. They have an advocacy program that they describe in this way: “We advocate for policies and programs that address root causes of poverty…We offer education about poverty and homelessness to public officials, our volunteers, and school, church and community groups through our Justice Education program. We enlist concerned citizens to voice their support through our online and grassroots Advocacy Network.” Their four main issue areas are: Housing/Homelessness; Health Care; Hunger; Work and Income.
Preparing Students for the Trip
The main way that Ms. Sciutto prepared her students for the visit was to analyze charts about the distribution of income in our country and comparing them with income differences in other countries. She got these charts from United for a Fair Economy http://www.faireconomy.org/
“Too often in high school economics,” Ms. Sciutto explains, “there is no place in the state frameworks for teaching the distribution of income in the U.S. You’re supposed to teach about things like GNP, GDP and the tools of the Federal Reserve, but not the distribution of income. No comparison is made of income disparities today with 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
“When students see that the wealth gap between the rich and poor has gotten greater over the years, they are very surprised. I showed them wealth gaps in Canada, Japan, France, England and other countries around the world. I would have all these charts up and I would ask, ‘Is our distribution of wealth more like Mexico or Canada?’ Students were surprised again. They saw that it was more like Mexico.
“This is information that most students were unaware of. They underestimated the lack of economic mobility in the U.S. I bet if you asked 20 adults on the street the last question that 19 would get it wrong. This is quite unfortunate. If you don’t know this information, how can you think about economic justice in our society or the need for change?”
The St. Anthony Foundation Experience
The staff at the St. Anthony Foundation has a one day program for high school students that begins by dividing them into small groups after which they are taken to different places in the community:
Some went to the Madonna Senior Residence where they talked with people, played checkers, scrabble or other games to help develop their compassion and understanding.
Others went to the Free Clothing Program where they helped out and got a chance to talk with the people working there.
Each group was taken on a tour of the Tenderloin, home to 30,000 people within 40 city blocks, which included single room occupancy hotels (SROs), a lot of liquor stores, no supermarket and limited availability of fresh food.
When it was time to see the St. Anthony Dining Room in action, students had to stand in line for lunch, not together, but sprinkled among the homeless and those who have a home but are hungry. They were asked to speak to people on the line and then to eat a meal with them. In this way, fellow human beings – whom students would ordinarily ignore (or in extreme cases ridicule or physically injure) – are individualized and humanized, and students see that they have some things in common. For example, one boy ate lunch next to a woman who had graduated from his high school. She had become a drug addict, and he could see needle tracks up and down her arms. He commented to Ms. Sciutto and his class later, “She was so bright. We talked about so many things.”
After this experience, they attended a workshop where they learned how homelessness is a systemic problem of our economy due to stark inequities between the rich and the poor. To make this a vivid experience, they used a lesson plan entitled, “What is Wealth and Who Owns How Much of It?” (It can be downloaded from http://www.teachingeconomics.org/ The subtitle of this site is “Teaching Economics As If People Mattered.”)
This lesson features 10 chairs where 10 volunteers stand behind each chair. It is summarized in this way: “Each chair represents 10% of the wealth and each person represents 10% of the population. By the end of the workshop, one person representing the top 10% is lying across seven chairs while the remaining nine are crammed onto the last three chairs. These exercises create a powerful set of shared experiences for participants that are far more memorable than watching a Powerpoint presentation.”3
Ms. Sciutto recalls that the St. Anthony staff discussed with her students how close many people are to becoming poverty-stricken and homeless, i.e., “If there is severe illness in a family with costly medical bills, if there is death of a family provider, if a home is foreclosed, the family could be dropped into poverty.”
Ms. Sciutto’s homework assignment was to write about what they saw, how they felt and what they learned about the homeless and poverty. The next day, time was spent discussing what they had written.
On the impact of this visit on her students, Ms. Sciutto said, “At the end of the year, when I would ask my classes, “What were 2 or 3 things you learned that were the most important to you?” many would choose the trip to St. Anthony’s as the most interesting and eye-opening experience.
“I think this trip made my students more sympathetic to the down and out. They lost some of their fear of them and began to understand the causes and that there are things that we can do as individuals and as a society to end hunger and homelessness.
Don’t avert your eyes when you see them; at least look at them and smile, even if you don’t have any money to give them.
Give them a certificate to a fast food restaurant for a meal.
Carry some tube socks with you because one of the problems on the street is that you often get wet in the rain and cold;
Offer them foods that are high in protein and that they can carry easily such as cans of tuna fish and peanut butter.
Volunteer at St. Anthony which accepts individuals ages 13 and older after an orientation session.
Work for social change by supporting groups that advocate for more low cost housing, programs that develop job skills and job creation, and legislation to make possible affordable health care for all.
“Through my classroom lessons and the visit to St. Anthony’s, I hope my students learned that homelessness is a complex issue; that it is one thing simply to hand out a meal to people and quite another to begin to see how our economic system works to marginalize them, letting them fall through the cracks without a comprehensive safety net to help them improve their life chances.
“Some of my students did return to St. Anthony’s as volunteers, which I was glad about. However, if I had this trip to do over, I would have included in my lessons other action components such as: inviting a leader from another grass roots organization to speak to my class about solutions that students could possibly participate in; writing to government officials to support a bill that addresses the housing crisis and/or would create more job training and job placement for the unemployed.
“There are many pressures on teachers to “cover” so much material, that although we would like to go into subjects more deeply, we often succumb to supervisors’ demands to stick to the curriculum. I think we could figure out how to go into subject matter more deeply and still teach the required curriculum if we would just make this a priority.”
1All the quotes from Adrienne Sciutto come from face-to-face and phone interviews by the author.
2This quote and other background information about the St. Anthony Foundation was gathered from its website: https://www.stanthonysf.org
3Quoted from the website of United for a Fair Economy in a section entitled “Stories Not Stats Win Hearts and Minds.” Another resource for teachers is the Economic Mobility Project: https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/projects/archived-projects/financial-security-and-mobility