College Course Teaches Students About Urban Poverty By 'Plunging' Into Shelters

Jan 4, 2016

A makeshift homeless shelter is captured under a bypass in Newport News, Va. In Pittsburgh, a group of nine Notre Dame students plan to volunteer at local shelters as part of a course called "Urban Plunge."
Credit Tony Alter / Flickr

Nine University of Notre Dame students will spend two days sleeping and volunteering in homeless shelters throughout their native city for school.

The one-credit, winter course aims to teach students about the complexities of urban poverty through an overnight “urban plunge” this week.

Organizers said 150 students will participate in 25 cities around the country. In Pittsburgh, students plan to visit organizations like the North Side's Pleasant Valley Men’s Shelter (male students only) and the Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center located Downtown, among others.

Students move shelter to shelter, learning from those who rely on services and assisting shelter workers. The Light of Life Rescue Mission will hosting the students for dinner service during the course.

Kevin Hayes, president of Hayes Design Group Architects and member of the Notre Dame Club of Pittsburgh, said the event connects students with their home city in a unique way.

“Many of the students have lived in suburban neighborhoods outside the city, and this is a chance for them to learn a little bit more about some of the issues that are happening and being addressed in the urban fabric,” he said.

Hayes said making sure students are a help and not a hindrance to the shelter’s operations has been a concern throughout the program’s 38-year history. Rather than sleeping in beds that are needed by those seeking shelter, students will use sleeping bags during their overnight stay on Monday; Hayes said students often sleep in conference rooms or someplace similar.

“They are a supplement to the staff of the shelter," he said. "So they may do a little bit of service. Most of the time, though, they’re just there to help in a ‘support’ way and get to know some of the clients of the shelter.”

Light of Life Spokeswoman Kate Wadsworth said it's an opportunity for them to experience the daily operations of a shelter.

“They’re coming at a time when it’s gearing up for dinner, so they’re going to be able to see the process of what it takes to get even just one meal ready for the people who come through our doors,” she said.

Wadsworth said participating with projects like the urban plunge will help to broaden students’ perspectives.

“[Urban plunge will] maybe debunk some of the stereotypes and help them feel empowered to know how to help the homeless,” she said.

Hayes said students who complete the course generally hail from many different fields of study, but take what they learn from Urban Plunge with them after graduation.

“They’ve started a path through doing the plunge that’s helped them take other steps to continue growing in their awareness and, in turn, their lives have been more service-oriented,” he said. 

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