Global Street Paper Summit Comes to Seattle University

This week marks one month since we hosted INSP’s Global Street Paper Summit here at Seattle University. The Summit was an inspiring few days populated by an international group of journalists and street newspaper staff, fabulous art and photo exhibits by Rex Hohlbein, Kyle Kesterson, Dan Lamont and local artists as part of the Real Change Portrait Project, and incredible speakers from near and far (including former Seattle Times journalist, Mike Fancher, journalist and author, Eric Liu, and our own Director of Marketing, Hannah Crivello, among many others). We felt immensely privileged to be part of such an important and energizing event.

On the first night of the conference, Dean Mark Markuly welcomed the attendees to the “Portraits of Homelessness” exhibition, which featured Rex Hohlbein, local architect, photographer, activist and founder of Facing Homelessness, as keynote. In his remarks (featured below), the Dean spoke eloquently about the School of Theology and Ministry’s work in convening and educating people around issues of poverty and homelessness and applauded the many journalists in attendance for “stand[ing] squarely in the tradition of the power of the pen to give voice to those who are not allowed a place setting at the world’s table.”


By Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD, Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry

Reblogged from the Dean’s blog, Soul Improv / Spiritual Meaning in a Time of Constant Change

2015 INSP Global Street Paper Summit flyerOn June 24-26, Seattle University hosted the Global Street Paper Summit. This annual conference put on by the International Network of Street Papers brings together hundreds of representatives from street papers all over the world to engage in networking, discussion, and education. Street papers are publications that serve two purposes: to spread awareness about poverty-related issues as well as provide employment for people experiencing homelessness. The conference serves as a way for people engaged in this important work to meet, share, and learn from one another. This was the first time the conference has ever been held in the US. The School of Theology and Ministry welcomed participants and facilitated workshops throughout the week. The workshops covered everything from programs developed to serve Seattle’s homeless population to low cost marketing strategies to utilizing social media.

Here are some remarks I shared with the attendees during the conference:

It is a great honor to have you with us this week on the campus of Seattle University, for the first-ever INSP summit in the United States. I hope you are getting a chance to walk around our beautiful campus, spend a little time outside in the sun, and maybe explore the city or take a ride on a ferry. You may have heard that we get a little rain in Seattle sometimes. While that is a bit of a caricature, it doesn’t always look like this in Seattle at this time of the year, and when the sun comes out like this, Seattleites emerge from their homes and buildings like moles leaving their holes, squinting at the bright light in the sky.

In case you haven’t felt it, yet, you are meeting on the campus of a Jesuit university that is a kindred spirit with the visions and missions of your newspapers. Within Roman Catholicism, the Jesuit tradition has two distinctive qualities – a commitment to the intellectual life, and a dedication and passion for educating future leaders to work for peace and justice, whether the motivation of that work is from a faith-based perspective or not. From the university’s engagement with poorer neighborhoods around the university through the Seattle University Youth Initiative, to our equally creative engagement with coffee growers in Nicaragua and the Jesuit university located in Managua, to the countless student internships and immersion experiences that are occurring throughout the city, the state, the nation, and many countries in the world: we are a university that tries every day to live up to our mission to focus our intellectual resources on the promotion of activities that will lead to a more just and humane world.  

Mark Markuly and Rosette Royal - INSP Global Street Paper Summit (6-24-15)

Dean Mark Markuly (L) and local writer and activist, Rosette Royale, at the INSP Global Street Paper Summit’s “Portraits of Homelessness” event which featured photo exhibits by Kyle Kesterson, Dan Lamont, and Rex Hohlbein of Facing Homelessness.

In the past few years we have had an exciting and dramatic university effort to respond to the realities of homelessness, especially family homelessness in the Pacific Northwest. In the true Jesuit tradition of the Italian Renaissance, which promoted the fine art of rhetoric and persuasion: we want to persuade everyone we can that it is unacceptable to have fellow humans beings living lives of quiet desperation, particularly in a city with the educational and industrial achievements and unprecedented levels of wealth as this one.  As you heard this morning from Dean David Powers, our communications department in the College of Arts and Sciences has engaged the journalism profession directly on the issue of family homelessness. 

Mark M. and Fr. Ryan

Fr. Mike Ryan and Dean Mark Markuly participate in one of the School of Theology and Ministry’s poverty workshops at St. James Cathedral.

My own School of Theology and Ministry began a faith and family homelessness initiative four years ago, due to the generosity of the Gates Foundation. In the past few years we’ve had a team of people from the school logging hundreds of hours as they have worked across the region to assist religious congregations and organizations in the deepening of their faith communities’ commitment to alleviating homelessness. Our primary effort began by working intimately with 14 Jewish, Muslim and Christian congregations, assisting their more than 18,000 congregants to organize their own community efforts to reduce the number of families living in shelters or on the streets.  In the process, we’ve also created a near educational cottage industry with a “poverty immersion workshop.” After getting featured in an Op-Ed in the Seattle Times, this workshop, which allows people to have a life-like experiential encounter with the frustrations and burdens of poverty and homelessness in the United States, became our school’s most popular extra-curricular activity, with hundreds participating across the region. We’ve had some remarkable results in this effort, and have in some ways had an opportunity to change the conversation about the potential of faith communities to move society’s needle on this complicated social problem. If you are interested in this effort to “breathe” the importance of working to end family homelessness into the Seattle area’s religiously plural population, you can talk to Lisa Gustaveson, the program manager for our school’s efforts.

Lastly, let me applaud you for the way you are spending your life as journalists of street newspapers. As a former journalist, with a degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, I think street papers are one of the most important evolutions in news reporting. When you look at journalism as a field, most people miss that the industry is not a dispassionate organization in search of the truth. It is a business, and often a complex one, requiring a substantial cash flow that requires all kinds of compromises between corporate and journalistic values. The larger media outlets have to dance to the tune of many pipers, and this can mute, if not extinguish, the deepest nobility in the profession of the Fourth Estate. Your newspapers stand squarely in the tradition of the power of the pen to give voice to those who are not allowed a place setting at the world’s table. 

2015 INSP Global Street Paper Summit poster with hashtagI love the title of your conference: INSPired together. This is, indeed, the only way humanity will make a substantive change in the world’s plight of homelessness. We have to do it together. But, I’m sure most of you also know that etymologically “inspire” comes from a Latin root (inspirare) meaning to “breathe or blow into.” Originally, the word referred to the blow of a divine or supernatural being into someone, in the sense of “imparting a truth or idea.”  

By nature of your missions, you stand with the populations in your cities and nations that have no discernable voice in the fast-paced, competitive and chaotic world of the second decade of the 21st century. In doing so, you breathe into your societies a truth about an issue many contemporary people do not want to explore, let alone understand, let alone change.  You go beyond good journalistic ethics to pursue the truth: you live, and move and have your being in the unsavory truths of modern societies, where poverty and homeless and marginalization exist in the shadows of unprecedented human wealth and privilege. Many of you represent the best in the tradition of the Progressive Era’s muckrakers, and the best of the tradition of a Charles Dickens, who gave voice and image and feeling to the lives of the poor of their era, or Rachel Carson, who convinced her generation to ban the pesticide DDT and create the Environmental Protection Agency, which made her one of the first people to capture the imagination of westerners around the issue of the environment. Carson gave voice and image and feeling to nature, to our Mother Earth. You, too, are giving voice and image and feeling to the lives of the poor and homeless.

Keep up the good work. We are delighted to have you here and I hope and pray you find new ways to collaborate with each other on your “inspir-ed” mission and vocation.

Read more about the summit on the school’s website, here.

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Holding the Paradox: The Band-Aid and the Long Haul

Margeby Margie Quinn

Margie is a native of Nashville, Tennessee and  graduate of the University of Georgia. After graduating with a Women’s Studies/French degree, Margie moved to Seattle to begin a one-year “Justice Leadership Program” through the United Church of Christ (UCC) church.

Margie made many happy when she decided to stay with us in the Pacific Northwest after completing her program. She is now the Program Manager for Facing Homelessness, a national effort to build a new awareness about our relationship with homelessness. She also manages Homeless in Seattle, a local effort to raise awareness for those living without shelter and other basic needs through the sharing of photos and personal stories that highlight their beauty.

This is Margie’s second post for our blog. Her first, The Power of Interruption: A Call for Advocacy  remains one of the most popular posts on our site.


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We are a verb-heavy generation. Helping, doing, serving, saving. “We are not human beings, we are human doings!” we shout, determined to accomplish it all. So naturally when I took a job at Facing Homelessness in the fall, I prepared for an active role, one that would allow me to help people in need every day and see them benefit from our work.

Our organization began from a Facebook project, Homeless in Seattle. While we have reached outside of this community to do other projects, we still use our Facebook page as our main awareness-raising and people-helping machine.

Here is how our Facebook page works. Every week, we post photographs and stories of people in need with the intention of showing the beauty of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle. We then invite our community of over 17,000 people to help these individuals by providing them with a tent, a pair of boots, or even a month’s rent to get them through a rough spot.

It is a rewarding feeling to post about someone in need and, within two hours, see that need filled by a number of caring people. The phrases that ring through my head are, “Instant gratification!” “Wow, that was fast!” “We did it! One down, 3,771 to go!” While I want to honor how quickly our community comes forward with compassion, I have to admit that my “fix-it” mentality is a slippery slope.

It’s tricky, this fix-it game. I can become so overjoyed when we help someone that I close the book on their story, assuming that they are now on an upward trajectory toward healing and hope. I know, I know. Total Millennial. But it takes a lot to fight against that part of me that longs for the happy ending, every time.

I met a man in the fall who changed the way I see homelessness. Let’s call him Jim. Jim would come to our office almost every day and help me sort donations or hand out socks to people on the street. Despite being homeless himself, Jim was diligent about doing street outreach with us in his spare time. We made a post about Jim a few months into knowing him, just announcing what a beautiful person he is. He’s a got a big heart.

A few months ago, Jim called our office and told us that he had gotten into housing. He would be moving from his shelter that weekend and couldn’t wait. He was elated and so were we.

I can’t explain the joy I felt the day Jim got housing. Enthusiasm, relief, victory. Jim had become a close friend of ours and his success felt personal in a new way for me.

What I couldn’t have known at the time is that Jim’s mental illness and psychological issues would not go away as soon as he got housing. In fact, as Jim transitioned into a single room in a big building, I started to hear from him less and less. He would send emails sporadically, saying that he was going out of town for a few weeks or that he couldn’t come by the office. Clearly, Jim was going through something and I couldn’t help him.

Here is what I am trying to say: I want the happy ending. I want to know that Jim gets better and stays better. I want to know that Jim is a happier man now. And so do many of our Facebook friends. When people drop off donations in our office, they ask about many of the people with whom we post. “How is she doing? Did she make it to that recovery appointment?” “How is he doing? Is he back on his feet yet?” I love it when my answer is a positive one, and it often is. But in the times when I have to say, “I don’t know, we haven’t seen him in a while,” or “He is back on the street,” I feel heartbreak.

Craig-3xWe talk about local minister Craig Rennebohm (pictured left) a lot in our office. Craig did street ministry in Seattle for a number of years and introduced a new way of helping people, in which you recognize that you yourself need help, too. He calls it Companioning. (read our 2012 post about Craig’s work here and  learn more about the Mental Health Chaplaincy here.

Companioning is not fixing. It is walking with someone through their suffering. Companioning is not telling someone what to do. It’s listening deeply to their wants and needs.

Companioning is not giving someone a dollar and wishing them luck. It’s showing up in someone’s life, time and time again, to bear witness to their existence and humanity.

This is the paradox, isn’t it? It’s finding how to celebrate the small victories and the acts of kindness pouring forth without forgetting the slow work of God. Because sometimes, God’s work is slow. Real slow.

Lately I’m trying to hold the paradox: The beautiful, quick fixes that our community provides for people in need with the slower, deeper process of walking with someone experiencing homelessness. There is no right or wrong here. Both the Band-Aid and the friendship are necessary in changing someone. But more importantly, both are necessary in changing ourselves.

♥ To join the Homeless in Seattle community visit their Facebook page.

♥ Want to start a movement in your community? Learn more at Facing Homelessness.

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Dean Mark Markuly: Seattle can solve the homeless puzzle by learning from other cities

In case you missed it, we’re reposting School of Theology and Ministry Dean Mark Markuly‘s recent Seattle Times Op Ed.  He asks some important questions about what it will take for our city and region to solve the problem of homelessness and speaks to the need to make the crisis more personal for all of us.  Something to ponder: what would you do if one of the 32,000 homeless students in WA State was your niece or nephew?


By Mark Markuly, originally published by the Seattle Times on 2/19/15

The 35th annual One Night Count of homeless people in King County last month demonstrated that one of the wealthiest, most literate, gifted and altruistic cities in the country is also hosting one of the most rapidly growing metropolitan homeless populations in the nation. Given the significant number of people, organizations and resources our region dedicates to the issue, the 21 percent increase of homeless people should haunt us.

Why is the problem of homelessness so vexing for Seattle?

In my view, we have not mustered the political will and right combination of contextual responses. Other cities have. According to NationSwell.com, the state of Utah discovered it is $5,670 a year less expensive to provide an apartment and a social worker to a homeless person than it is having society bear the cost of emergency-room visits, law-enforcement interventions and jail.

By putting a roof over the head of the homeless and providing a trained coach or mentor, Utah has reduced homelessness by 74 percent since 2005, and saved money as well.

New Orleans announced last month that it was the first city in the nation to end one demographic of homelessness: veterans. Through a coalition of nonprofits, homeless-service providers, U.S. service members, veterans and federal, state and local agencies, the city has permanently housed 227 homeless veterans. Phoenix has also made significant improvements in veterans’ homelessness.

Many cities have found solutions to homelessness by galvanizing inspiration, citizen involvement, agency coordination and political determination through participation in programs like the 100,000 Homes campaign.

Nashville, Tenn., placed an average of 19 homeless people per month into permanent housing in 2013, but is now housing 47 monthly. Since 2011, Jacksonville, Fla., has lowered its homeless population by one-third, and its chronic homeless population by two-thirds.

In many cities, including Seattle, religious traditions are an essential ingredient in the recipe, often providing space for “cross-sector” collaboration.

In Shreveport, La., an ecumenical group of churches called FaithWorks brought together 32 organizations serving the homeless to discuss a collaboration that is beginning to move the needle on the issue.

In Seattle, the Road to Housing program, a collaborative venture between the city and faith-based organizations, provides safe places to park for those living in automobiles and access to essential services such as bathrooms, meals and clean clothing.

The Downtown Emergency Service Center is a similar state-church partnership, begun in 1979 between the Greater Seattle Council of Churches, the City of Seattle and Washington Advocates for the Mentally Ill. Plymouth Church’s Commitment to Social Justice’s Housing Group, and Healing Communities are two other highly effective faith-based responses to homelessness.

So, why are Seattle’s homeless numbers going up while those in other cities are going down?

We’re still trying to figure out the Rubik’s Cube of issues. We certainly lack the housing stock of Utah, continue to struggle with coordinating our service providers (unlike Nashville and Jacksonville), and cannot muster the political will to dramatically impact the issue (as in New Orleans).

Because homelessness is so complicated, with a blinding array of intersecting causes, we also have failed to integrate the right resources from government, industry, nonprofit agencies, private citizens and religious traditions in the correct intensity and chronology.

However, I think our biggest challenge to this problem is something more fundamental: For most of us, homelessness isn’t personal enough.

As part of its interfaith Faith & Family Homelessness Project, the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University conducts workshops in schools and congregations that allow participants to experience a small taste of the challenges that homeless people face every day.

By role-playing scenarios that represent the common setbacks in the lives of very poor people, participants experience the frustration and Catch-22s that suck the motivation, creativity and hope from people on the verge of homelessness. The workshop makes the issue of homelessness more personal, and instills in participants the human values, virtues and resolve needed to go the distance with this stubborn social problem.

Ending homelessness in a nation as wealthy as ours is not impossible, but it is apparently more difficult than the kinds of problems our highly gifted region is conditioned to solving. The One Night Count should frustrate and anger us and it should invite real humility in our past efforts. It should also drive us back to reassessing the nature of the problem and our collaborations to fix it. Let’s just hope it doesn’t convince us to give up on the problem. As a community, we’re better than that.

Ending Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness Media Alert Moral budget School of Theology & Ministry Seattle U Social Justice
Food with Spirit -Urban agriculture meets service to others with new program launched by SU students and staff

Food With Spirit: Seattle University Students Grow Food for the Homeless

Our SU students are doing some exciting things here in our First Hill neighborhood. Read below to learn how students have combined shared concerns for sustainability and social justice to serve those experiencing homelessness in our city. (Reblogged from jesuits.org)

St. James Cathedral Kitchen Garden

St. James Cathedral Kitchen Garden, started in Spring 2014

February 2, 2015 — Seattle University students delivered 40 boxes of homegrown produce through spring, summer and fall of 2014 to feed the homeless at St. James Cathedral Kitchen in Seattle. The students grew the food right in the university’s neighborhood as part of a campus initiative called “Food With Spirit.”

“This is a great example of urban farming and how much food you can grow in such a small space,” says Karen Price, Seattle University’s campus sustainability manager.

Janice Murphy, Seattle University’s integrated pest management coordinator, was instrumental in launching the program. While attending a meeting of Food and Faith, an interreligious group, Murphy was inspired to learn that  various faith groups were growing and serving food to neighbors in need. “I felt we could do more in that direction at Seattle University, that we had the ability to contribute in a meaningful and organized way,” she says.

Murphy began talking to some students about growing food to serve the poor. About a dozen joined the effort under the umbrella of the university’s Sustainable Student Action club. With Murphy serving as adviser, the group partnered with the Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability and Campus Ministry, which helped connect the students to the meal program at St. James.

Starting small, the first batch of vegetables was grown in community garden plots on campus in spring and early summer and given to St. James. Meanwhile, Murphy was approached by a neighborhood organization with a small plot of land it was looking to develop into a community garden. It turned out to be a perfect fit, and students constructed four raised beds there. Outside of the new garden, students also worked to build raised beds for others in the community.

Murphy calls the Food With Spirit initiative “a small but very positive action in a complex world. With food security and justice a global issue, one of the cornerstones of sustainability is an investment in urban agriculture. For college-age students, in particular, this is important work. It’s a tool for teaching others, a springboard for rethinking broken food systems, and an incubator for inventive ideas about food security for future generations.”

For student Chris Johnstone, the most rewarding part of the project  is “seeing people getting excited about growing food. I have heard so many people say, ‘Wow, what I put into the ground is actually growing like magic!'” [Source: Seattle University]

Action Faith and Family Homelessness Homelessness Seattle U Social Justice
Cupped Hands, Sea water - Give me Water to Drink

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

By Mark Taylor, Ph.D., Professor and Director of Worship, Seattle University School ofTheology and Ministry

For over a century now, Christians around the world have set aside January 18 to 25 as a week of special gatherings and prayers that the God-given unity of the church become more visible. Collaborating with the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the Archdiocese of Seattle, and its Protestant and Anglican partners, Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry celebrates the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity with special morning services on campus, daily written reflections posted to the Worship and Liturgy blog, and a grand region-wide worship service (this year at Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle from 7:00-8:30pm on Thursday, January 22).

The unity of the Christian churches is sometimes most apparent when they work together for peace, justice, and human dignity. At the same time, the needs of the poor and marginalized around the world call out urgently to Christians of every sort. So, the Week of Prayer comes as an annual challenge to us to put our faith into action, together as children of one God.

Resources for the 2015 Week of Prayer were created by the churches of Brazil acting together.  They chose the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 as a focus. Recall that story:  Jesus is a foreigner in Samaria who arrives tired and thirsty.  He needs help and asks for water. The Samaritan woman is in her own land; the well belongs to her people, to her tradition. She owns the bucket and she is the one who has access to the water. But she is also thirsty. They meet and their encounter offers an unexpected opportunity for both of them. Jesus does not cease to be Jewish because he drinks from the water offered by the Samaritan woman. The Samaritan woman remains who she is while embracing Jesus’ way. Even today, when we recognize that all people have reciprocal needs, our lives become richer and more generous.

This story and its key line: “Give me water to drink,” calls us to ethical action – because we need each other!

School of Theology & Ministry Seattle U Social Justice

Young Adults in Ministry

Getting young people excited and engaged in their faith can be a huge challenge. Faced with a downward trend in religious affiliation over the last several decades (especially among young adults), churches and faith communities have grappled with how to revitalize their membership and bring youth and young adults back into the fold. Creating relevant and engaging youth and young adult ministry by, for example, bringing young adults into ministry themselves and focusing on issues of social justice (like family homelessness) is key.

Many of our Project Partners provide great examples:

Score One for Homeless Families

Score One for Homeless Families

  •  Temple De Hirsch Sinai: A middle school-aged girl preparing for her bat mitzvah coordinated a basketball themed awareness activity for the middle school program called “Score One for Homeless Families.” The program involved Seattle U women’s basketball players, featured a formerly homeless speaker, and served as a fundraiser for local programs that benefit the homeless.
  • St. Mark’s by the Narrows: Presented an event series called “Who is My Neighbor: Stories of Faith and Family Homelessness” with a special interactive program for children/youth.
  • Temple Beth El : Gathered families together for Tikkun Olam Day (“repairing our broken world”); provided programming on family homelessness tailored by age for preschool through high school students.
  • All Saints Catholic Church: Engaged the parish school students in learning about family homelessness throughout the school year, with hands on activities, guest speakers, art exhibits and other experiences to help the youth understand their role in ending family homelessness.

The article below, which appeared in the September 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic, speaks to the current dynamic of young adult involvement in the Catholic Church. Young people play an important role, increasingly bringing new life to ministry, changing the conversation, and making the church their own. Look for the spotlight on our very own School of Theology and Ministry, as well as contributions from Dean Mark Markuly, 2014 M.Div. alumna, Hannah Hochkeppel, 2012 MAPS alumnus, Joe Cotton, and 2012 MAPS alumna Jennifer Ibach.


The next generation of lay ministers

By Katie Bahr
Youth Ministers

Image: Photos courtesy of Anna Dudek, Joe Cotton, and Emily Anderson

As the first wave of lay parish staff members begins to retire, a fresh crop of young people are bringing new energy and new ideas to parishes across the country.

Not every teenager knows what they want to do for a living, and fewer still dream of a career in church ministry. But after getting involved in her parish’s youth ministry program during her teenage years, Emily Anderson knew that this was what she wanted to do with her life.

“My faith was always a big part of my life,” she says. “My mom was always very up front with me that ‘you belong to God.’ As I grew up, I learned to appreciate that I truly did belong to God, and it sort of all worked up to this.”

Anderson knew that, like any career path, a job in parish ministry would take training and preparation. After earning her bachelor’s degree from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, Anderson went on to earn a master’s degree in theology and Christian ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio. “I knew I couldn’t answer the questions that teenagers would have when I became a youth minister, and as much as I loved the youth ministry program I grew up in, I didn’t always get the answers I was seeking,” she says.

By the time she was 24, Anderson was already working full time as a lay minister. Now 31, she has been in her current position as director of youth ministry at St. James Parish in Falls Church, Virginia for five years. Although she is one of the youngest people on staff at her parish, Anderson’s youth gives her some advantages, including more time and energy to devote to her job and an instant credibility with the teens she ministers to. Still, her job has many challenges. “I’m single and I’m really throwing myself into the church,” Anderson says. “I realize I may not be able to do this forever, but I think for now it’s a good sacrifice.”

Young adults such as Anderson who are pursuing careers in lay ministry are far from the norm in the Catholic Church, but they are slowly becoming more a part of the church landscape. Although it is a growing field, lay ministry has historically attracted people looking for a second career or former stay-at-home mothers reentering the workforce. According to the 2005 report Lay Parish Ministers: A Study in Emerging Leadership from the National Pastoral Life Center, the average age of lay ministers in the United States at the time was 64.

As these positions become more prevalent, Catholic colleges and universities have developed programs specifically designed to train students for careers in lay ministry. Enrollment numbers at some colleges are showing an increase in young adult students pursuing studies in the field. Armed with energy, enthusiasm, and a passion for their faith, these young Catholics could bring fresh ideas and big changes to parishes across the country. →Read the full article on U.S. Catholic’s website

 

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Public Education System: An Intro to Firesteel’s Homeless Student Blog Series

Introduction by Lisa Gustaveson, Project Manager for the Faith & Family Homelessness Project at Seattle University

553830_10200650804746093_599565699_nThe beginning of this summer, my family, friends and I committed to volunteering once a week at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and Mary’s Place Emergency Family Shelter. Our posse of volunteers take turns bringing the evening meal, and stay for an hour or so afterwards to help with the children while the moms set up their sleeping areas.

Each Monday, I find myself looking forward to our time at the shelter. The time spent with the families has changed me in subtle and startling ways, and the love and respect I have for the families and the dedicated staff who care for them has grown. Hanging out with the kids is fun for all of the volunteers; on the outside, the children seem a lot like housed kids – energetic, silly and sometimes naughty.  They thank us when we bring them strawberries and watermelon, and run to the library after dinner when they can read a little and play a lot with the teen volunteers.

Looking deeper into the eyes of the children, I can see how living in turmoil, chaos and crisis affects them. I know that every night they sleep on the floor, every meal they miss and the hours in school that are wasted because they can’t focus, will likely add up to a lifetime of struggles.

This seven part series by our partners at Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness for Firesteel gives us a glimpse into how difficult it is for children living in poverty and homelessness to succeed in school. The data and stories the author, Perry Firth, shares helps us to understand the special needs of homeless students, and offers ways WE can be the catalyst for change. Please take a few moments out of your day to read this first piece, and subscribe to Firesteel for the next six posts. You won’t be disappointed.


Children know when they are falling behind academically. As they continue to struggle, they can develop both low self esteem and a dislike of school. That is why it is so essential that children who need extra help get it.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /> Image from pixabay.com.

Children know when they are falling behind academically. As they continue to struggle, they can develop both low self esteem and a dislike of school. That is why it is so essential that children who need extra help get it. Image from pixabay.com.

As the new school year starts, teachers face many challenges. So do children who are dealing with homelessness and poverty. And this couldn’t be truer than for impoverished children who are also in need of special education services. With parents focusing on day-to-day survival and too busy to consistently advocate for their needs, children who are homeless may fail to receive the services they need to succeed in school.

The result is that children already harmed by their living circumstances can fall even further behind. Therefore, adults who work with children in poverty and homelessness need to understand how this environment influences academic skill and emotional development, and how it relates to special education needs.

So, we present this seven-part series on how homelessness and poverty affect the development of children, and how this can show up in the education system. Thanks to Perry Firth from Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness for contributing this important series.


Written by Perry Firth, project coordinator, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness; Seattle U School Psychology graduate student

Hungry and tired, the boy squirms in his seat. Surrounded by classmates studiously working, he stares out the window, one leg anxiously thumping the side of his desk. In second grade, he has already experienced the types of stressors that dull the colors and geographies of childhood into shades and valleys of gray.

His teacher, a young enthusiastic woman standing at the front of the class, observes him. His book is opened to a happy story, but neglected. There are dark circles under his eyes, and he startles easily.

She has noticed that he seems both alienated from his peers and clearly desperate to fit in. Unfortunately, the basic social skills required to gain social acceptance don’t come easily to him.

Regulating his emotions is also a struggle. Prone to outbursts, he doesn’t communicate his needs in grade-appropriate ways.

He accumulates school absences and tardies the way other students accumulate new clothes.

Having noticed that he is also struggling in reading, she is beginning to wonder if he may have some sort of disability.

Truth is, the boy is homeless.

This account is a fictional, yet realistic, description of how a child’s homelessness may manifest in the classroom. Indeed, these struggles and outcomes related to homelessness could typify any of the more than one million homeless school children living in America today, or the 30,000 school children who are homeless in Washington state.

This scene also captures the confusion that teachers may encounter as they attempt to pinpoint the reasons that a child is struggling in school without understanding their housing situation. The teacher in this story — like many real ones — is confronted with a difficult challenge: How to differentiate whether a child is struggling because he is homeless, or because he has a disability (or both).

Classroom indicators of homelessness infographic

This problem of differentiation brings up many questions:

  • Does the child struggle to read because she’s missed so many school days, or because she has a learning difference? How has homelessness and poverty impacted her cognitive and emotional development in general?
  • How does this influence her success in the school environment?

These are all good questions. Yet, as we often encounter when seeking to tease apart environmental and genetic influences, the answers are layered, nuanced and ecological.

Homelessness in Classroom-Eco Systems Model graphic
Human beings develop within systems. From this ecological perspective, child development is influenced by everything from family functioning and genetics, to community norms and broad societal beliefs. Image from wikipedia.org.

What to expect in this series

This seven-part blog series seeks to answer the last question: the impact of homelessness on academic success. We’ll explore how homelessness and poverty affect the cognitive, emotional and behavioral development of children. Given that success in school is so essential to a child’s future, poverty’s influence on academic success will also be a major theme.

We’ll pay explicit attention to what school professionals and child advocates need to know, including:

  • The harmful factors that accompany homelessness and poverty, like frequent school moves and low quality housing.
  • How homelessness and poverty can create toxic chronic stress, and how this stress impacts the brain and can impair a child’s ability to develop normally.
  • How the stress of homelessness influences academic achievement and learning.
  • The unique issues school professionals face as they evaluate and try to provide services to children who are homeless.

Intersection between special education and homelessness

We’ll also delve into to the special education category “Emotional Disturbance.” Children receiving services under this category struggle with many issues, like emotional-behavioral disorders and high drop-out rates. In turn, this hinders their ability to find secure employment as adults.

Unfortunately, children who are homeless and/or living in poverty are more likely to need special education services – but don’t always get them. Therefore, we’ll highlight how trauma, scarcity and stress can affect special-education placement, and contribute to the cycle of poverty.

Useful strategies and connecting to policy

In the last two posts in the series, we will provide practical strategies that school professionals can use to ensure that homeless children get the special education services they need. Finally, we’ll give an overview of important policy and legislation that can influence how schools provide these services.

Photo: Teacher with book in classroom
Understanding how poverty and homelessness affects academic success isn’t enough; strategies which enable school professionals to meet the needs of their most vulnerable learners are also essential. Image from pixabay.com

Coming up next, on Sept. 3:  “Hungry, Scared, Tired and Sick: An Overview of How Homelessness Hurts Children.” This post will provide a foundation in some of the problems that can accompany childhood homelessness, from increased mobility and school changes, to poor-quality housing and poor physical health.

What you can do

  1. Share these posts with your friends and colleagues to increase their impact.
  2. Read related Firesteel posts, likeNo One Would Have Known I Was Homeless,” in which a young woman gives a first-hand account of what it was like to be homeless in high school.
  3. Download the brochure on helping homeless students, “Understanding Homeless Students’ Educational Rights,” newly updated for 2014-2015. This is a fantastic resource for students, parents, teachers and social workers, published by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
  4. If you’re a McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison, teacher or school staff member in Washington state, attend the upcoming training sessions hosted by Washington state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Oct. 8 in Spokane or Oct. 9 in Seatac (registration required).
Advocacy Data and Reports Ending Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness Firesteel Homeless Families Homelessness Data Project on Family Homelessness Seattle U Social Justice
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