Tents on campus kick off Homelessness Awareness Week

The university is using an all-hands-on-deck approach to address the crisis in a collaborative effort with local government and community organizations.

October 25, 2016 Joanna Clay

This week, USC students are popping tents across campus to spread the word about homelessness.

Homelessness Awareness Week – a collaborative effort between university staff, faculty, local government and community organizations – marks the largest and most comprehensive push the university has made to tackle the issue.

Homelessness is a top priority to Provost Michael Quick, the chief academic officer of the university.

“This is exactly the kind of effort we must take on,” Quick said Monday.

Right now, Los Angeles’ homeless population symbolizes not only a statewide struggle, but also an issue of national proportions. Twenty-one percent of the nation’s homeless call California home, according to the county. While homelessness was stable for a while, it has seen an overall increase in the last two years.

Making a dent

“I’m hoping we can make a big dent in homelessness in the next year,” said Dhakshike Wickrema, deputy for homelessness and mental health for Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes the USC University Park Campus.

This week is symbolic of an all-hands-on-deck approach the university has taken on the issue. This year, Quick announced that homelessness was one of the top four “wicked problems” the university would put resources to solve. The university aims to bring faculty from across disciplines – from architecture to engineering – to come up with solutions, collaborating at the city and county level.

Jack Lahey speaks
Organizer Jack Lahey, speaks at a gathering on campus at the beginning of Homelessness Awareness Week. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

“It’s not something that the county can fix on its own,” Wickrema said at USC on Monday. “We need the community on board and that includes students, teachers, residents … I think when people work together and people have awareness – you can be just part of the overall solution.”

Student-led activities

The week of activities is predominantly student led, where they’ll be passing out information to fellow students on how to help and also leading walking tours of Skid Row later in the week.

Quick is also using the week to kick off his wicked problem speaker series with a conversation with James O’Connell, a Boston doctor who worked with the homeless for 30 years.

“I think as USC students one of our most important duties on this campus is to create the change you want to see in the world,” said Angie Mendoza, a senior and interfaith student leader. “I think it’s important for USC students to engage with the local community.”

Varun Soni, dean of religious life, hopes that the student interest doesn’t just end at volunteerism but trickles into their class selection, their research – to “connect their desire to change the world with their professional aspirations.”

Besides students, the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work is also leading a national push, along with New York University, to get social work schools across the nation to prioritize homelessness. Professor Ben Henwood, who is steering that effort, called on Trojans on Monday to not just push to end homelessness but to let them know L.A. is their home too.

“The harder part is helping people who are part of our community feel like they belong here,” he said.