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A group of students wearing yellow shirts and construction hats

Athenians put a different twist on Spring Break

Working with the homeless is perhaps an unlikely way for college students to consider spending Spring Break. But for 12 Mount Saint Mary’s students, the week off provided the unique opportunity to support four nonprofits that are addressing what the Los Angeles Times has called ”the most intractable problem facing the county and city of Los Angeles.” 

The number of homeless people living in Los Angeles County has continued to grow, reaching an estimated 44,000 in 2015, up from 39,000 in 2013. And each year, the county spends close to $1 billion caring for them.

Over the course of five days, the 12 students participating in the Alternative Spring Break program prepared, served and shared breakfast with 70 residents living at the PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) housing facility in Hollywood. They provided breakfast service and organized a food pantry at St. Francis Center, located north of the University’s Doheny Campus. That was followed by a day staffing Homeless Health Care’s downtown Los Angeles syringe exchange program and assisting with the organization’s Rapid Rehousing Program. Donning hard hats and work belts, they then joined a Habitat for Humanity Greater Los Angeles work crew building affordable housing in nearby Inglewood.

The program was capped by a tour of Skid Row and a roundtable session with Alisa Orduna, homeless policy analyst for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who discussed the mayor’s $100 million plan to help house homeless Angelenos.

“Alternative Spring Break is designed to help students understand the issues affecting the community around us. Homelessness and poverty are major ones, which is why we’ve focused on them for the past two years,” says Kim Terrill, director of community engagement. “Through the experiences the program provides, students have found that the stereotypes we normally associate with homelessness and poverty are just that – stereotypes – and that they are not representative of the people and families affected by these issues.”

Mount Saint Mary’s Alternative Spring Break was first held in 2015 across four days. The number of in-field days was increased this year to five. In 2017, Terrill aims to increase the number of student volunteers to 15, which would be the limit that most nonprofits could accommodate at once. She also plans to open the program’s preparatory training sessions, as well as its post-event reflection activities, to students University wide.

Reflections from the field

Madison Hernandez ’16, sociology:

“Insightful, compassion and dignity would be the three words I’d use to describe Alternative Spring Break. I saw the compassion and dedication of those committed to helping the homeless solve their problems – and the dignity with which they served them. I also saw the opposite: how people see just one version of homelessness. They don’t see the well-educated female paralegal whose luck simply ran out. And they don’t see that it can happen to anyone.”

“I had never been to a homeless shelter or worked with the homeless before. This experience changes you; it widens your world view and forces you to recognize the needs of individuals who are often overlooked. As a sociology major, it gave me the opportunity to touch a major social issue. It gave me the chance to look at the world through the lens I needed to, away from my privilege, and to be able to reassert my conviction that justice and equality need to be served."

Mayra Hernandez ‘16, sociology, emphasis in Spanish and human rights:

“The most challenging part of Alternative Spring Break was working in the needle exchange program, which has been controversial. It was difficult for all of us to focus on the program’s mission – disease prevention – while dealing with the sense we were perpetuating drug addiction. At the end of the day, we could see the program really was making a difference in that it offered a gateway to other types of assistance, such as medical care and rehab.”

“We’re caught up with our own lives and it’s nice to step back and realize there are so many other problems affecting the world around us. It’s important not only to learn about those issues in class but also to live with them even if it’s just for a day.”

For a look at some of the scenes from Alternative Spring Break, visit the Mount’s Facebook page and Instagram account.

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