Learning and doing

Lake Harriet Upper School students focus on homelessness for year-long project

Huddled together with their classmates in the pews of Christ Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill in St. Paul, Lake Harriet Upper School students Sara Fetterly and Lea Bart quietly studied a map of homelessness in Minnesota.

It showed that the majority of the state's homeless were concentrated in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, especially Hennepin County.

&#8220That makes me feel very sad because that's where I live,” Fetterly said.

She and Bart looked over the statistics, taken from an October 2003 survey. At that time, Hennepin County's homeless shelters housed about 3,090 people, or about 44 percent of the state's entire shelter population.

&#8220I don't usually see homeless people on the street,” Bart said. &#8220Knowing that there are so many ”

She trailed off.

Since making homelessness the focus of a year-long project, the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students have had their eyes opened to aspects of the state's homelessness problem they had never before considered. More important, they plan to do something about it.

That morning in early February, about 20 of them gathered with hundreds of other activists at Christ Lutheran for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless 2007 Lobby Day. In a few minutes, they would walk across University Avenue to push for passage of the Housing Solutions Act, a bill designed to triple state funding for affordable housing.

Parent volunteer Lyn Mitchell, the school's service learning coordinator, said the program was designed to encourage that kind of citizen involvement.

&#8220That's the goal with good service learning,” Mitchell said. &#8220This is the kind of education that's going to stick.”

The students decided to focus their efforts on the problem of homelessness in November at the end of a two-day service retreat with the Urban Immersion program.

Urban Immersion Retreat Coordinator Brian Reusch said the students were first introduced to many of the issues surrounding urban poverty, such as the lack of employment, housing and affordable health care. They then volunteered at four area centers that serve the homeless.

The next day, the students had to decide on a specific goal for their project. The students talked about combating hunger, addressing joblessness and raising the minimum wage, but they kept coming back to the same thing, said student Anna Bertel.

&#8220We decided homelessness was the biggest problem and all the other problems kind of fall under that,” Bertel said.

Now the students are planning a project they call Pennies for Change. They plan to teach their schoolmates about homelessness and the encourage them to toss spare change into jars in their classrooms. All funds raised will go to Tubman Family Alliance, which operates several area homeless shelters.

Already, the students leading Pennies for Change looked at the homeless as more than just panhandlers.

&#8220They're not only on the street asking for money,” student Eva Mitchell said. &#8220There's a story that goes with it. I ask myself: ‘Why him? Why her?'”

For some families, Bertel learned, minimum wage was not enough to keep them in their homes.

&#8220It's really unfair that some people make just enough [to get by],” she said.

After meeting with Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60) and grabbing a quick lunch, the students rushed to an early afternoon session with Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B).

After hearing Hornstein express his support for the Housing Solutions Act, student Emily Minge raised her hand and asked: What could they, the students, do to end homelessness?

First, he said, continue to support local organizations like the Tubman Family Alliance. Second, stay involved with the people and the business at the Capitol.

&#8220Don't just come for one day,” Hornstein said.

As evidence of the impact youngsters can have on the political process, he said the Legislature would soon debate a bill to make penalties harsher for drivers who commit moving violations while talking on a cell phone. A 15-year-old Minneapolis boy first pitched the bill to Sen. Dibble.

&#8220I'll tell you, kids are listened to around here,” Hornstein said.