MCC-Blue River sociology students walk a mile in uncomfortable shoes

By Brandon Dumsky

Imagine being outside in the desolate cold, your stomach growling for food, no money or credit card in your pockets, merely possessing the clothing on your back and wondering if you’ll manage to survive the next day.

That’s what nearly 100 MCC-Blue River sociology students experienced Wednesday morning during “Homeless For a Day.”

The activity was a simulation in which students at the Independence community college  took on the role of a homeless person and experience first-hand the challenges and hardships they endure daily.

“I never felt so hopeless and judged in my life,” one student said.

Each student was given a list of objectives to complete such as construct a shelter out of makeshift materials like cardboard, panhandle for money, convince workers to be allowed inside a mock homeless shelter for lodging, and document and reflect on their experiences.

“This activity is intended to explore social privileges, investigate assumptions on how the homeless are perceived, and understand that opportunity is not distributed equally,” said Cynthia Heddlesten, Blue River sociology instructor and simulation coordinator.

According to a federal study in 2002, approximately 1.7 million young people call the streets home every year. Of those 1.7 million homeless youth, an estimated 70-75 percent are from the immediately surrounding area.

“From reports by area school districts, there are currently 6,000 homeless people in the Kansas City metropolitan area and 400 out on the streets at any given night,” says Sara Eckinger of Synergy Services, a non-profit organization that provides services to struggling families and homeless youth, according to their website. Synergy sponsored Wednesday’s homeless simulation and they hoped the event woud raise awareness of youth homelessness and break stereotypes.

“You had to swallow your pride,” said student Ben Dartin. “Building homes out of boxes is harder than you think.”

One student brought up how it was “convenient” that unexpected cold temperatures arrived on the morning of the activity. It added more to the pile of difficulties they encountered.

On the night before the homeless simulation, students were not allowed to eat or shower and had only torn and tattered clothing. Several students said they were judged immensely by the general public and their self esteem drastically lowered when begging for money.

“Some people even snickered at you when they walked by,” said student Constance Wright. “Overall you are treated much different. I felt intimidated when a lady looked at me.” The rest of the Blue River student body and some staff were unaware of the homeless role-playing. Virtually all of the sociology students participating reported to have been treated differently.

The students said that either drug addiction or mental illness are generally blamed for homeless youth. “But in reality it’s really out of their hands,” student Naya Wilson explained on the causes of youth homelessness. “Parents disowning their child after getting pregnant or simply not being able to find a job are some of the reasons.”

During the mock homeless shelter scenario, a number of students said they tried to persuade shelter workers by building a convincing case in order to be admitted. “(These homeless shelters) consider you ‘capable’ of surviving on your own. They usually won’t take you in,” one student said during the post-discussion. “You really have to change tactics and become resourceful.”

Although the simulation just lasted a short four hours, it made a profound impact that will last a lifetime, according to student testimony.

“We got to raise awareness,” says student Amber Honeycutt. “We need to speak out.”

Despite being judged and overlooked by others most of the time, one role player claimed that a campus securuity officer offered $30. “There are still some good people out there,” they claimed.

Synergy Services raised $500 during the activity for their teen refuge center as well.

“Honestly (the simulation) made me think about my own life,” said a student.

“New, unexpected changes and even the smallest event could make you homeless,” Heddlesten said to her students. “It looks like a lot of you acquired a new perspective.”