UW-Madison students take ‘Small Steps’ to better community homelessness

Porchlight representative Beatrice Hadidian discusses the homeless shelter's operations with UW-Madison students at the Sewell Social Sciences building Monday. 

Image By: Thomas Yonash

While UW-Madison students finalize their housing plans for the 2015-‘16 academic year, a group of students hosted an event Monday to educate attendees about a severe problem: homelessness.

What began as a project for a UW-Madison leadership course blossomed into nine students establishing Small Steps, an organization raising awareness about the homeless population and encouraging fellow students to reach out to those in need.

The two-hour “homeless simulation” featured speakers from Porchlight shelter, the Young Women’s Christian Association and the UW-Madison Police Department.

UWPD Lower Campus Community Officer Tricia Meinholz described the daily duties she carries out to aid the homeless population in and around the UW-Madison campus, including providing homeless community members with food and warm clothing and connecting them with local shelters and food pantries.

“People think law enforcement [is] there to bust the party. They’re there to issue the ticket, take people to jail,” Meinholz said. “That’s not why we’re there. We’re there to help.”

Bob Faga, a formerly homeless man, praised the Porchlight services he utilized to get back on his feet and discussed how his experiences and struggles changed his perception of panhandlers and others in need.

“I used to walk down State Street and some guy would ask me for change. I’d think, ‘If I give him this change, he’s just going to get drunk.’” Faga said. “Now I know that might be the one thing that keeps that person alive.”

Founding member of Small Steps and junior kinesiology major Jade Koenigs said the campus’ proximity to State Street and its homeless inhabitants qualifies the UW-Madison student body as a great audience for the homeless simulation.

“College students are here to go to college, but they want to make a difference in this world. That’s why they go to college, so they can have an impact,” Koenigs said.

Faga said he sees homeless stereotypes as the complication standing between students and their abilities to make true change.

“The biggest [problem] is the stigma we have against homeless people, but they’re our neighbors. They’re our friends and our relatives,” he said. “We just don’t know what life’s going to dish out to us.”

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