Sociology Students Get a Picture of Homelessness

Published: May 16, 2013
Trader Bell, right, talks with Steven Vaccarino ’16 about what life was life when Bell was homeless. Bell is now runs the organization We R Our Brother’s Keeper Fellowship.
Trader Bell, right, talks with Steven Vaccarino ’16 about what life was life when Bell was homeless. Bell is now runs the organization We R Our Brother’s Keeper Fellowship.

Rachel Boucher ’14 grew up in a small town in New Hampshire where she was rarely exposed to the issue of homelessness.

So when her applied sociology class accompanied a previously homeless man named Trader Bell throughout Tampa to tour the places he used to sleep, stand in line for a free meal and kill time during the day, her eyes were opened wide.

“I had a negative to neutral connotation of homeless people before. I didn’t see it as something that needs immediate attention,” said Boucher, a sociology major. “But spending three hours with Trader Bell and seeing what he had to deal with changed my mind.”

The UT students were divided into groups and assigned different projects with the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County. Most of the projects involved updating phone numbers and services in databases or resource lists, but others involved direct service with the homeless. Many students spoke of the rewarding nature of the hands-on work, and said they gained a new awareness of the challenges homeless people face, including in the seemingly small task of getting an updated phone number for a charity.

“This experience gives you a different view of what others go through,” said Shamika Williams ’15.

Fostering empathy and equipping students to respond to the issues facing the homeless is exactly the point of Professor Norma Winston’s class.

“The goal of applied sociology is to use sociological skills to improve aspects of society,” Winston said. “The students should be proud of the work they’ve done.”

The PhotoVoice project involved getting a glimpse into a day in the life of a homeless person through first-person photographs. The UT group assigned to assist with this project helped assemble the photos collected into a collage and displayed them at a table in Vaughn Center.

Darren Steptoe, an AmeriCorps VISTA member working with the Homeless Coalition, said the students benefit through service learning, which is a method of teaching, learning and reflecting that combines academic classroom curriculum with meaningful public service.

“I want the students and the general community to simply learn about the (homeless) participants and use that knowledge to come up with a plan to deal with the issues that were exposed from the photographs,” Steptoe said, “and to become champions in the community who use the available resources to prevent homelessness.”

According to the Homeless Coalition’s 2011 homeless count, there are 17,755 homeless men, women and children in Hillsborough County on any given night; 23 percent are children; 5 percent are veterans and 65 percent have some source of income.

Boucher described an abandoned house the PhotoVoice group visited, at which Bell said he spent many nights.

“I was actually too nervous to go inside, therefore I only saw a picture of it once Trader had come out, and was completely blown away that people actually lived like that,” Boucher said. “It broke my heart to see those pictures of emptiness.”

Steven Vaccarino ’16 said his impression is that homelessness is a dangerous lifestyle.

“It gave me a new connection to the issue, seeing this,” said Vaccarino of the sites he visited with Bell. “It takes things like this to give homeless people a voice and spread awareness.”

All the students said they knew about homelessness but not the extent of the issue. For Shantelle Eddy ’15, it was eye-opening to see it so close to home, just a couple blocks into downtown Tampa.

“We never get out of our UT bubble,” Eddy said. “This really gave me insight.” 

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