“Welcome to the place you never want to end up,” yelled a man on downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a homeless community of more than 10,000 people that covers 50 blocks. He was addressing a group of students from USC and Atlanta’s Kennesaw State University (KSU) who were touring the area for a project on homelessness.
The tour was part of Leadership Exchange, a program created three years ago by the USC Office of Campus Activities, a department within the Division of Student Affairs. As part of the program, USC students partner with students from universities across the nation to deconstruct social issues.
USC and KSU teamed up for a six-month exploration of leadership, service and the social issue of homelessness that included two immersion weekends, one in Atlanta and another in Los Angeles. Students completed a team project that focused on homelessness during the program.
The project brought eight USC and KSU students together on Jan. 27 for an illuminating experience.
“I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting this,” said Adriana Lee, a sophomore nursing major at KSU. “It’s really eye-opening to see people in this condition. In Atlanta, you see homeless people, but it’s nothing like Skid Row. I’m really more grateful for all that I have, and I now have more compassion for the homeless. I want to get involved and see what I can do as a young person to help out.”
When USC junior Ola Bayode arrived in Los Angeles from Florida, he was alarmed at the number of homeless people he saw.
“The issue of homelessness has always interested me, but I didn’t realize so many people here were living in this condition,” said Bayode, an economics major. “I wanted to come today so I can make a connection with the people I want to serve, and I see this as an opportunity to give back.”
The students began their day at a meeting with Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry to get her perspective on the city’s response to homelessness. During the hour-long meeting held in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, the students asked if the city had any job training or career development programs for homeless teens, if funding is a major challenge and if students can get involved to help.
“It’s important for students to immerse themselves in an issue and to deconstruct it from many facets,” said Lily Chowana-Bandhu, associate director of Campus Activities. “We hope that they are able to look at homelessness from different sides and find out where they fit in to create change.”
When the students arrived at the Los Angeles Police Department Central Division, they met officer Deon Joseph, a 17-year veteran who has patrolled the Skid Row area for 14 years. The students were surprised by the statistics, pictures and stories he told about Skid Row, but it wasn’t until they stepped out into the community for a tour that they understood the reality of Joseph’s presentation.
The students were able to adjust to the overwhelming stench of urine, the piles of discarded clothing on the sidewalks and the street littered with garbage. But when the officer led the group around several blocks, where conditions went from bad to worse to deplorable, eyes welled with tears, jaws dropped and all felt an urge to get involved.
“I’m not here to demonize the homeless, but you have to understand what Skid Row is because some of you guys are going to want to come back here and help, right?” Joseph told the students. “You have to do it from a truth-based foundation so you can understand how to help these people.”
After the tour, the students headed to People Assisting the Homeless, where they cooked dinner for residents of the shelter and made Valentine’s Day boxes with the children. The group spent the following day playing bingo with senior citizens in Santa Monica. During spring break, USC students will look at homeless conditions in Atlanta.
Josh Hunt, program manager at KSU, said one of the goals of the exchange program is to inspire students to get involved.
“It’s a way for students to advocate and do things they’re passionate about, whether it’s homelessness or another issue. The program is really teaching them how to make a difference.”