Students Study Poverty by Joining Homeless in Shelters

Jan 9, 2012

Before returning for the spring semester, nine area college students will complete the Urban Plunge, a three-day program in which they will live in homeless shelters and have the opportunity to interact closely with the city's poor.

"A lot of the students have grown up in suburban neighborhoods, so the idea that there are people growing up just miles away without money to feed their children strikes students at their cores," Urban Plunge Committee President Teresa Hagan said.

In its 34th year, the program is sponsored by the University of Notre Dame, and attracts students who study fields as diverse as biology, accounting, and philosophy. Each student will receive one credit for the program, which is offered in 40 cities nationwide and is coordinated locally by Notre Dame alumni groups.

Hagan completed the Urban Plunge herself as a university freshman and is now a nurse researcher studying disparities in heath care, a career choice she attributes to the program.

"Our hope is that they take what they see and begin to ask questions, that they bring those questions back to their lives and where they see their careers going," Hagan said.

During the day, students will meet with directors at 16 local agencies, including groups offering food and legal and healthcare services. At night they will divide by gender and stay in shelters Downtown and in the North Side.

"That's when they get exposed to the individuals themselves, and I know they spend a lot of time talking at night about personal matters, about what it means to be homeless or poor in Pittsburgh. That's when the conversations really start to happen," Hagan said.

According to Hagan, basic problems like lack of access to food and housing have not changed much in Pittsburgh since the program began. Moreover, this year the group will see increased needs within the agencies themselves, many of which face reduced budgets and are struggling to get by on what is left.