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A Lesson in Life on the Street : Students' Experience With the Homeless Starts from the Ground Up


PASADENA — The mean streets of Pasadena just got meaner for Stanford University freshman Hanh Bui.

It's Day One on spring break with the homeless. In a weeklong program that ends Friday, 13 Stanford students are eating, sleeping and mingling at Pasadena's Union Station shelter. They spend days walking the streets with no money, watches or maps, and lug around their belongings in a plastic trash sack.

Their lessons in street smarts are quick and to the point. Bui's outlook changes in the time it takes a panhandler to rattle a cup.

Trash bins become potential freebie mines. Grocery carts are there for the taking. With storms predicted, the umbrella over a hot-dog vendor's stand starts to seem tantalizingly sturdy for rain protection--and so do the big patio umbrellas in the back yards of stately houses near the Arroyo.

"One thing I learned on the street is it wouldn't take me long to start taking things and doing things I wouldn't normally do," said Bui, 19, exhausted from a day of walking in Pasadena and hauling her possessions. "You're constantly being resourceful."

While thousands of college students spend spring break in Palm Springs or Fort Lauderdale, Fla., others hook up with social service agencies nationwide for projects to meet homeless people in Pasadena, work with migrant farm workers in Oregon or live on a Navajo reservation in Utah.

Along with Stanford, at least three area universities--UCLA, USC and Occidental College--send students on the alternative spring break projects, said H. Michael Magevney, a co-director of Break Away, a national, nonprofit clearinghouse. The 2-year-old group, based at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, gives advice to universities and students who plan spring break service trips.

Occidental College senior John Theodore, an Eagle Rock resident, planned spring break service projects for 27 students at his university as an independent study project in lieu of a term paper.

"Most of the students at Occidental are privileged, I'd say," said Theodore, 21. "This is their chance to give something back."

About 8,000 students nationwide join alternative spring break trips, Magevney said. Students receive no university credit and must pay a small participation fee, usually $40 to $75 for van transportation and some meals. Lodging usually is provided by the participating agency.

Magevney conceded that cynics might see the students in the spring break programs as slumming, their involvement as patronizing rather than educational.

A week's experience isn't going to prompt social change, but the program is intended to be a jumping-off point for students who are too busy with academics to volunteer during the regular school year, he said. "Students realize that the weeklong experience is going to last a lot longer than a suntan or a hangover that their friends in Palm Springs get," Magevney said.

Magevney said he thinks that Union Station is the only Los Angeles County social service agency that accepts spring break groups. The homeless shelter is in its third year of hosting college students.

This year's program includes meetings with experts on homelessness, visits to Los Angeles' Skid Row and Santa Monica's shelters, and assigned tasks such as cleaning shelter showers and ladling soup in food lines.

"It's an immersion into what it means to be homeless," said Frank Clark, Union Station's director of volunteer programs. "The business of sleeping in the shelter will introduce them to people in that shelter. It will become Peter, Paul, Mary and their 3-year-old boy. The real faces of poverty. They'll get to know them."

Clark emphasized that neither beds nor food are taken away from the homeless for the program; students bring sleeping bags and sleep in a shelter annex, and food donors are asked to bring extra provisions for the week.

On a sunny, smoggy morning, the students get a crash course on Pasadena's homeless situation, scribbling facts in red binders such as the city's homeless count: 1,017 in 1992. Students also are asked why they are there.

Stanford sophomore Liz Casals says she wanted a firsthand look at homelessness.

"You don't go into it thinking you can make an impact or change the world, but just, 'I want to know,' " the 19-year-old American studies major said.

Psychology major Jonathan Marshall says he wanted to get inside the heads of homeless people.

"What is it that keeps them going on and not (becoming) suicidal?" the 23-year-old junior said.

In the afternoon, after lunching on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in Pasadena City Hall's courtyard, Clark assigns groups of three to seek out an expert on a topic such as homelessness and AIDS. They have no watches and only $3 to buy rain gear, in anticipation of storms during the week. They are lucky; last year's students got no money for rain gear, and a few resorted to panhandling. (Shelter officials discourage this.)

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