Homeless in Columbia find friends among USC students

USC students’ efforts aim to raise awareness, increase connections

This is the final story in a three-part series featuring homelessness in Columbia.

Less than 1 percent of Richland County’s population is estimated to be homeless. But that doesn’t mean the other 99 percent doesn’t have a stake in addressing the problem of homelessness.

Raising awareness of homelessness and advocating for changes in attitudes and actions are pieces of the broader ongoing public discussion about homelessness. David Asiamah of the South Carolina Homelessness Coalition said one way to “really impact homelessness in a way that reduces the number” is to “advocate in meaningful ways.”

“Giving someone a sandwich is a noble act, but it does little to help transition a person out of homelessness,” Asiamah said. “Support a living wage. Support affordable housing units in your neighborhood. Stop being a passive bystander.”

Some USC students have answered the call to not be passive bystanders and are taking active roles in serving and advocating on behalf of the community’s homeless population.

‘THEY ALREADY HAVE A VOICE’
Statistics about homelessness were not enough for Ari Lindenbaum — he was interested in people and their stories. The third-year music student began interviewing the homeless for a class project, and now he shares those recorded interviews at community presentations with an advocacy group called Homeless Helping Homeless.

“I felt like with all the facts and statistics I had, I still didn’t really know what being homeless is like,” Lindenbaum said. “I still would say that I don’t. That’s kind of a hard thing to experience. But I can say that I’ve gotten closer, hopefully, to understanding that.”

Sharing the stories of people who have experienced homelessness is important, Lindenbaum said, because it’s a way for them to speak for themselves and form connections with people who have never experienced homelessness.

“When you know someone personally it’s a lot harder to ignore a problem. Also, when you know a person, it’s harder to talk about that situation with a stereotype in your head,” Lindenbaum said.

And sharing their stories is empowering for the people who have experienced homelessness, Lindenbaum said.

“It’s not every day that you get to talk to people about your situation and how you got there or what you’re trying to do,” Lindenbaum said. “I think that’s one of the great outputs of advocacy when you involve people who are actually in the situation. I’m not giving them a voice. They already have a voice.”

‘EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT’
Nick Lenze was looking for a place to complete a service-learning requirement when Lindenbaum introduced him to Homeless Helping Homeless.

The first-year biochemical and molecular biology student has been attending the advocacy group’s weekly meetings throughout the semester, where he and other members plan and discuss service projects, fundraising events and advocacy presentations.

One of the group’s main goals, he said, is to come up with solutions city leaders can use to address homelessness in the community.

“Just like the rest of us, they can’t agree on one solution,” Lenze said. “There’s a lot of controversy, but they are all constructively looking for a way to help. There’s a lot of viewpoints, so it’s interesting.”

Lenze recently founded a new student organization, Carolina Homelessness Outreach, he said will “try to integrate students and other university resources to address homelessness.”

The group met for the first time last week. Getting students to think about homelessness at all is one of the first steps in getting them to take action to end it, Lenze said. He wants to see the group get involved in service projects and connect with other community organizations that address homelessness.

“For me, just walking to CVS, I encounter homeless people. [Homelessness is] obviously present in Columbia, and people are aware of it, but they’re not educated about it,” Lenze said. “I think education is important.”

‘A LITTLE RECOGNITION CAN GO A LONG WAY’
A passion for service led Susan Todd to begin volunteering at the weekly free breakfast at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, an experience that led her to develop a passion for a specific people group in need.

“I didn’t start going to the homeless breakfast originally because I was passionate about that people group at that point,” the third-year experimental psychology student said. “I became passionate after I started working there.”

She said her favorite part about serving at the breakfast is when she goes table-to-table filling up coffee cups and having conversations with the people who are there.

After working at the Trinity breakfast consistently and participating in the single-night homelessness count earlier this year, Todd said she’s learned that forming personal connections with homeless individuals is one of the simplest actions people can take to address homelessness.

“I think having contact with someone creates a connection with someone,” Todd said. “More than shelter, more than food, what individuals want is someone to tell their life story to and just to talk to.”

She said she makes a point to acknowledge people on the streets as she walks by, as “even a little recognition can go a long way.”

“I don’t know who I pass on the way to work, whether they’re homeless or anyone else, but I kind of make a point to just give a head nod or something,” Todd said. “It’s just simple pleasantries, and I feel like that can go a long way. And it’s so easy.”

Editor’s note: The author, Nick Lenze and Susan Todd are students in Bret Kloos’ South Carolina Honors College class, “Homelessness in South Carolina: Research and Action.” Research and reporting was done for this series as part of a final research/advocacy project.


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