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IAP Activity Gives Students Chance to Help Homeless

By Michael A. Saginaw
Staff Reporter

Homeless advocate Byron H. Paladin spoke to an Independent Activities Period community service volunteer group two weeks ago about his experiences as a homeless man in Boston.

During IAP, students enrolled in the activity entitled Volunteer to Work in a Homeless Shelter or Other Community Service Organization (17.903), served in homeless shelters, tutored immigrants in English, and organized children's recreation programs, among other activities.

"We heat up food and cut up bread," said Shallni Verma '95. She worked in the York Street shelter, where 22 homeless women are allowed to sleep every night.

"Twenty out of 22 [women] are the same from night to night," said Rohit Gupta '95, who worked in the same shelter.

Verma found that some homeless people were very different from what she expected. "We met one person who had a master's degree. She was thrown out of her home by her family," Verma said.

Speaking in front of the class, Paladin said that in February 1992 he helped found the newspaper Spare Change, which is written and produced solely by homeless people. The paper sells for 10 cents a copy. Profits, which range from $18,000 to $20,000 a month, are spent on homeless causes, Paladin said.

Paladin said that he ran into some opposition when he started the newspaper. "People had said, `it's too much of a risk,' but the homeless are tired of hearing that they can't do things. We need encouragement and a positive attitude that we can do something like this," he said.

Seven homeless staff members work full time for the newspaper; 61volunteers, who are not necessarily homeless, also help out. The newspaper is published at The Harvard Crimson press.

He added that in addition to the money earned from advertisements and sales, Spare Change recently received a $10,000 contribution from Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. They will receive a $5,000 grant from the Amelia Carlisle Foundation to pay for newspaper equipment, and they may also be eligible for a $5,000 grant from Fund for the Homeless.

Paladin said that once people have been homeless for more than three months, they become "institutionalized." They go from meal to meal and from shelter to shelter. Most shelters only keep people for three days. Homeless people have to spend their time figuring out what shelter to go to next, and where to go for the next meal. There's no time to think about long-range plans.

It is extremely important to find a place to sleep indoors this time of year, he said. Last year, 80 people froze to death on Boston area streets, he added.

Paladin feels that the chances of a homeless person getting a job are very slim. They have no address and no phone number. Because it is very easy for a homeless person to be robbed, they often have no identification. They have no place to keep things and no privacy. Also, a lot of available jobs are night jobs, but many shelters won't let people sleep there during the day and work a night job.

To illustrate how difficult it is for a homeless person to get a job, Paladin said that when he first arrived in Boston, he stayed in a homeless shelter for three days and filled out 78 job applications. In the next three days, he handed in his applications and gave employers the phone number of the shelter where he was staying.

During the three days when he handed in applications, he did not get one call. After that, the shelter threw him out because he could not get a job, and he did not have an alcohol or drug problem that merited special treatment, he said.

Homeless people face a problem of stereotyping, Paladin said. When employers see a shelter listed as a residence on a job application, they think the applicant is irresponsible. Paladin noted that this generalization is not fair because, for example, some people are homeless because their homes burned down.

Paladin is also working with Boston Jobs for Peace, a branch of National Jobs for Peace. As the government decreases military spending, National Jobs for Peace looks for ways to divert that money toward environmental, health, and educational causes.

Also, he is developing a youth center and a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. He has organized voter registration programs. "There are no limits to what we can do... I want to make something out of my life that other people can build off of," he said.