Centre students explore poverty and homelessness

December 08, 2003

Centre College classes are known for being challenging and providing hands-on experience, and a fall-term class taught by Rick Axtell, associate professor of religion and college chaplain, exemplifies these characteristics.

Axtell has been teaching "Studies in Ethics: Poverty and Homelessness" at Centre for seven years. Of the class's many requirements, one is particularly challenging to his students this semester: they were to spend one night at a Louisville homeless shelter.

"I like this exercise because it gives students the opportunity to observe life in the shelters and to interview the people they meet there," Axtell said. "It's an experience that fosters greater understanding of an almost hidden part of our society."

The idea arose out of Axtell's own "life-changing" experience of living for almost two years in an inner city Louisville transitional shelter as a ministry resident and case worker. Later, he was a case manager at St. Vincent de Paul's transitional shelter for men in Louisville. For 17 years, Axtell has been a member of an inner city Louisville church that ministers to homeless men and women.


Throughout the fall semester, Axtell's students have spent either a Friday or Saturday night, roughly from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., with a class partner at one of Louisville's three main shelters: Wayside Christian Mission, Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul. The 22 students are encouraged to interact with shelter residents and talk to them about their situation.

"This assignment taught me the importance of listening," said junior Emily Green, an English major from Tullahoma, Tenn. "Once you start listening to someone, that breaks down a barrier. Everyone deserves to have the dignity of being listened to."

Upon returning from their overnight visit, Axtell's students reflect on their experience in their journals. Students evaluate the experience based on what they had studied about causes of homelessness and theories of social justice. But many students also comment about how uncomfortable they initially felt walking into the shelter because of the different environment and their student-observer role.

"Normally I don't have trouble talking with people, but I was unsure of how to talk to people without seeming condescending or intrusive," said senior Rachel Harrod, a religion major from Owenton. "One woman referred to herself as a guinea pig that we came to observe. But I think she appreciated us for asking her about her experience. She told us we needed to stay a week to get an accurate idea of life at the shelter."

Jess Metzmeier, a senior double-major in anthropology/sociology and religion from Louisville, also found it difficult to adapt. He will enter a master's program in social work after graduation.

"For the first few hours, I had no idea what was going on or where I should be," he said. "I felt like I was in a herd of cattle - quickly getting into a line whenever it formed and following even though I had no idea where I was going."

Axtell intentionally drops off students down the street from the shelter so that they will walk up by themselves in order to have the experience of approaching, entering and checking in as anyone else would. Axtell spends the night in Louisville while his students are in the shelters, and eats in the soup kitchen to keep an eye on them.

"I've always given students the option to call me at any time if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe and need to leave, but in all these years, I've never had a student call," he said. "The next morning when I pick them up, they're always anxious to talk about their eye-opening experience. It's an incredible learning experience for everyone involved."

One student recently had an evening she won't soon forget when she stayed overnight at Wayside Christian Mission. Senior Brittany Perrin of Salem befriended a 19-year-old woman while attending the Urban Goatwalker Cafe, an open-stage coffeehouse that features artists from all walks of life, including a large number of homeless performers. While talking to a girl named LaQuisha, Perrin soon found that they shared many common interests, including plans for a career in law.

"She told me she had a plan to get her life together and get out of the shelter," Perrin said. "She wanted to get her GED and eventually go to school to be a paralegal."

LaQuisha impressed Perrin not only because she had similar aspirations, but also because of her compassion and cheerful spirit.

"While we were at the Goatwalker, LaQuisha got into a conversation with a man who had been at Wayside for a long time but was now getting ready to move to a nursing home. He was fretful about leaving his community of friends at Wayside, and LaQuisha was so supportive and responded perfectly to ease and comfort him. I was in awe. I had no idea what to say to him, but here was this girl younger than me and without a home, and she had it more together than I did."

The young women stayed up talking late into the night. "It really felt like I was with a bunch of friends in the dorms. But then I would remind myself that this wasn't a dorm; it was a homeless shelter," Perrin said.

Perrin has been exchanging letters regularly with LaQuisha and has been back to visit her. As a direct result of her experience at Wayside and with LaQuisha, Perrin headed up a shoe drive to bring needed shoes to the women at Wayside.

"Shoes were the No. 1 thing all of the women there are in need of," Perrin said. "People donate clothes, but they forget to donate shoes, which are really important as it turns cold."

Axtell said encounters like Perrin's opens the eyes of many Centre students.

"The students approach the experience wondering what they will say to homeless people. They always return having encountered people - the labels have become less important. This experience puts a face on the problem of homelessness and makes the issue less impersonal."

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