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A lesson in leadership

USC student Janet Lee cooks dinner for the homeless. (Photo/Lily Chowana-Bandhu)

They have all seen homeless people, and some have even volunteered at soup kitchens or homeless shelters. But a group of students from USC and Kennesaw State University (KSU) wanted to see the issue of homelessness through the eyes of city government.

On Jan. 25, City Councilwoman Jan Perry ’77, MPA ’81 spoke to these students about her 11-year quest to find funding for homeless services. Her talk was part of Leadership Exchange, a program of USC’s Office of Campus Activities that explores leadership, community service and the social issue of homelessness.

Perry’s words had an immediate impact.

USC sophomore Brian Liao, part of a student group that serves food at a soup kitchen every Saturday, joined Leadership Exchange to figure out how to do more.

“It’s obviously a very big issue, but to understand it a little bit more is to come one step closer to solving it,” said Liao, an electrical engineering major.

“The general mindset is to keep your distance, don’t even look at the people on the street, don’t talk to them,” said Kaela Nicholson, a sophomore at KSU. “I’m really interested to break through that barrier and hear the people’s stories. I feel the same way as the councilwoman — we do need to help these people.”

As Perry told the students, when she was elected to office in 2001, her district included Skid Row, a homeless community that covers 50 blocks in downtown Los Angeles.

One of the first things she did, at a time when the homeless population of Los Angeles County was 78,000, was to extend an emergency shelter program from three months to year-round.

“Of all the work I have done as an elected official, this is the most meaningful and the most difficult,” said Perry, a Los Angeles mayoral candidate in the March election. “There is no political advantage to doing this work. I can tell you if there was, I probably would have been on the cover of Newsweek.”

In 2005, she authored a bill that created a trust fund to establish affordable housing and permanent supportive housing, which includes on-site services for the mentally ill.

“We are digging our way out, and every project holds a great promise of a future that’s better for people who have been forgotten or thrown away,” said Perry, who holds a bachelor’s degree in broadcast management and a Master of Public Administration from USC. “That’s part of our social contract, and I believe that we are obligated to help people who need our help the most.”

After a Q-and-A session with Perry, the students headed to Skid Row, where they cooked dinner for the residents being helped by People Assisting The Homeless, a group of agencies that are collaborating to end homelessness. The next day, the students helped the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to prepare for the 2013 Greater Los Angeles homeless count.

In March, the USC students will travel to KSU to study homelessness in Atlanta and then work with their KSU partners on a final project to complete the semester-long leadership program.

“Leadership Exchange approaches the social issue from all different facets — political, community-based organizations, law enforcement and individual one-on-one,” explained Lily Chowana-Bandhu, interim director of Campus Activities.

“There’s an opportunity for our students to interview people experiencing homelessness and get firsthand understanding of someone else’s lifestyle and difficulties and challenges. Our students will eventually, by the time that they finish the program, see where they best fit in addressing this social issue.”

A lesson in leadership

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