Faculty and Students at the College at Brockport Advocate for the Rights of People Experiencing Homelessness

Professors Barbara Kasper and Melissa Sydor (College at Brockport – SUNY, Department of Social Work) have led several community organizing activities to involve the school’s BSW program in efforts to connect with the struggles of the homeless population in their community (Rochester, NY). These community-based educational activities reflect a commitment to CSWE’s Competency 3, which underscores social workers’ need to understand strategies designed to eliminate oppressive structural barriers and to advance social, economic, and environmental justice.

At the school, internships are intended to provide students with micro and macro practice experience. However, if a placement cannot provide macro practice experience, students can organize campus and community-based events to meet this requirement. Additionally, many students volunteer to be part of events beyond doing so for course credit. Community organizing efforts at the school range in type and scope. Some examples are provided below.

Learning about Organization Efforts Led by Homeless People

Students and local activists, in collaboration with campus- and community-based partners, joined together to bring Cheri Honkala, leader of the Poor People’s Economic Rights Campaign, to speak at an event titled “Connecting the Struggles and Building a Movement: Stories of Struggle and Resonance.” Honkala spoke about what poor and homeless people are doing around the country to fight back against their invisibility and advocate for their economic rights. A panel of local activists and experts contributed to the discussion, with a particular focus on recent issues related to Rochester’s homeless population.

Advocating for the Rights of Homeless People

In December of 2014, the City of Rochester bulldozed a tent city referred to as “Sanctuary Village,” which destroyed the shelter and personal belongings of more than 40 homeless people. The city eventually agreed to allow these people to be housed temporarily in a warehouse. In response to the bulldozing, Barbara Kasper wrote an essay for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about barriers to housing faced by homeless people and advocating for the city to adopt a Homeless Bill of Rights. Additionally, Kasper and Sydor organized a community forum, which featured Willie Baptist – a formerly homeless man with more than 40 years of community organizing experience with the poor. The event also included representatives from Picture the Homeless, an organization in New York City that develops leadership among homeless people to impact policies and systems that affect their lives. Over 100 people attended the forum. Students helped plan and promote the event, either as part of a course or as volunteers.

Photography student, Audrey Horn, from the Rochester Institute of Technology created this video for the event to document the disparity between what many would consider a “typical” day and a day experienced by individuals living in a temporary homeless shelter. This video features Sanctuary Village in Rochester, New York.

Raising Awareness with a Campus Tent City Event

A Tent City event occurs annually on the main campus at Brockport. This two-day event is typically organized by students. Tent City is a community education and awareness event as well as a fundraiser for local organizations who serve the homeless. In addition to sleeping outside in tents overnight, students solicit local businesses for donations; “panhandle” on campus for donations; collect clothing donations; recruit and supervise volunteers; invite local anti-poverty activists to speak; and screen documentaries that focus on poverty and homelessness. Click here for a press release about the 2015 Tent City event.

Blog Post Author: Amanda Aykanian, Research and Project Lead

Special thanks to Barbara Kasper for providing content for this blog post.


Robin Petering, Doctoral Candidate, Shares a Story from the Field

Photo Aug 14, 10 34 41 AMRecently, I showed up totally spent at the homeless youth drop-in center where I teach a weekly yoga class – physically and mentally drained. This particular drop-in center is one of the largest in the country and provides Los Angeles’ youth experiencing homelessness or housing instability with services such as food, clothing, showers, case management, health and mental health care, amongst many others. When I got to the day room it was seriously crowded, but no one seemed to be interested in doing yoga. Some days this agency sees over 100 youth in one day. I hung out for a bit, trying to recruit youth into my class. Every time I show up, I never know what I’m going to get, how many or who will be interested.

Finally, Josh popped out of the computer lab. Computer lab happens at the same time as my class and happens to be my biggest competitor. Josh wanted to join in. He is one of my regulars. He consistently comes to class. Josh is a sweet and kind African American youth. He is probably 20 years old. When he’s not in my class, I see him reading comic books and rocking out to metal YouTube music videos with his headphones on. Josh also has a serious mental illness and sleeps on the streets of Hollywood. He loves yoga.

For class today, I opened with a simple breathing exercise, also known as a pranayama.  As a yoga teacher, I’ve been trying to incorporate more pranayama into my teaching. Pranayama, in its simplest translation, means “controlled breathing.” In Sanskrit, prana translates to the life-force (aka breath). Yama often translates to restriction. Therefore, pranayama is the restriction of the life-force, or controlled breathing. There is an an endless number of pranayama exercises that are as simple as counting out your inhales and exhales. The health benefits of pranayama are well-established. Pranayama directly affects the parasympathetic nervous system. Something these youth can really use. Something we can all use.

I opened the class with Surya Bhedana Pranayama. Inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left is supposed to activate the body and its bodily functions. It energizes and lights the fire in the body. Then, after about 40 minutes of poses, I closed class with Chandra Bheda Pranayama, which is simply the reverse – inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right – which calms the body and slows down the heart rate. Surya – the sun – awakens, and chandra – the moon – calms.

After class ended, I checked in with Josh. I explained to him that the breathing exercise at the beginning of class is supposed to energize and the breathing exercise at the end is supposed to calm. I asked him if he felt that the pranayama had these effects. He looked at me and said, “Do you believe that it does?” I was kind of taken aback at the opportunity to reflect.  I said, “Yeah, I think it does.” Josh responded, “Everything works if you believe in it.” I could not respond right then, but just smiled.

All the exhaustion that I showed up with had faded away.

Josh is right. Everything does work if you believe in it. I am a social work researcher. I spend countless hours studying the lives and health of homeless youth. Before pursuing my doctorate, I worked in the field as a clinician, outreach worker, and advocate. Today, I am also a yoga teacher. Trust me, I’ve spent many hours in mental conflict wondering: “What am I doing teaching yoga, when I should be reading, writing, and collecting data?! This is just a hobby and, frankly, a waste of time!” However, I eventually decided to stop viewing my roles as a social worker and as a yoga teacher as separate. Today, I teach yoga to homeless adults, families, and youth in Los Angeles at three different service agencies. I am in the process of developing the first yoga intervention study within the Los Angeles County Youth Probation Department. I’ve collected carloads of donations of athletic clothes, water bottles, and backpacks from Los Angeles-based yogis to support classes and workshops. These efforts keep growing and the lines keep blurring.

I believe that yoga heals trauma. This is a fact. I believe that yoga is for everyone. I believe, through the right education, awareness, and outreach, that yoga can change the lives of homeless youth and other overlooked and underserved populations. Yoga has surely changed my life. Through my work with Josh and others like him, I continue to learn these lessons every day.

I look forward to the next lesson.

Blog Post Author: Robin Petering, MSW

Robin Petering, MSW, is a PhD Candidate at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work. She obtained her MSW in 2011 from the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California-Los Angeles. Although Robin’s primary role is as a social scientist, she is committed to bringing yoga to underserved populations. She currently teaches three weekly yoga workshops in homeless and homeless youth service agencies across Los Angeles and is continuously expanding this endeavor. In the future, she plans on designing her own curriculum for training yoga teachers to work with unique populations. Robin is also a substitute yoga teacher at various yoga studios across Los Angeles.
To learn more about Robin, visit her website – robinpetering.com – and follow her on Twitter (@robinpetering).

UT Austin SSW Partners with Homeless Service Agencies to Create Community-Based Learning Opportunities for Students

The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work, a National Center partner school, has effectively used partnerships with local service agencies to develop and implement several homelessness-related projects. In addition to more traditional research, evaluation, and consulting efforts, faculty at the school have used these university-community partnerships to create community-base learning opportunities for students. Community-based learning teaches students about homelessness while also advancing the goal of ending homelessness. Additionally, such projects can enhance the learning experience and help students translate the abstract concepts and theories discussed in class into meaningful and practical applications for improving the quality of life in their community. Three recent examples are provided below to serve as inspiration for other schools of social work.

Students visiting new homeless community in Travis county called Community First!

Example 1: Supporting Point-In-Time Count Planning
Community-Based Agency: Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), which serves at the lead agency for the Austin/Travis County Continuum of Care.

Description: Dr. Calvin Streeter is a member of ECHO’s Board of Directors and has led several class projects with the organization. Most recently, a Dynamics of Organizations and Communities class canvassed areas outside ECHO’s normal Point-in-Time Count (PIT) geographic area to determine where there might be homeless camps that ECHO does not yet know about. Students documented the process they used, including how they found locations, and produced maps identifying key areas where homeless people may be found. The purpose of this project was to help ECHO prepare for the 2016 PIT count by providing information that could be used when deciding where to expand its count area to better capture the number of people experiencing homelessness in the county.

Example 2: Researching City Council Candidates and Districts
Community-Based Agency: Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), which serves at the lead agency for the Austin/Travis County Continuum of Care.

Description: Dr. Calvin Streeter and another of his Dynamics of Organizations and Communities class worked with ECHO to gather information about each of Austin’s City Council districts and the candidates running in each district prior to a recent election. Students mapped Point-In-Time data for Austin/Travis County to the 10 City Council Districts, to help educate candidates about the homeless population living in their district, and a factsheet with data on Austin/Travis county as a whole and on each of the 10 City Council Districts.

Example 1: Creating Social Justice Themed Documentaries
Community-Based Agency: Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). ARCH provides emergency shelter, case management, housing programs, and other services.

Description: Dr. Miguel Ferguson teaches his BSW students about homelessness through a partnership with ARCH. The class goes on on a field trip to ARCH. Students complete 10 hours of community service during the semester; many students complete these hours at ARCH. Students are also required to create a short documentary about a social justice issue and, typically, over half of students choose homelessness as their topic. For these documentaries, students commonly interview homeless individuals, service providers, and SSW faculty about the topic.

Blog Post Author: Amanda Aykanian, Research and Project Lead