Parnika Shukla believes that housing equals stability.
As the director of the Housing Equity Team, a relatively new group within the Social Justice Hub at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she gets the opportunity to advocate for this stability in the Madison community firsthand.
The team was founded in the spring of 2021 and aims to increase awareness about housing inequality in Madison and the greater Dane County area. By hosting volunteer opportunities centered around homelessness with community organization partnerships, members are exposed to and able to directly help and serve the community.
The team works with organizations like Porchlight and the First United Methodist Church, packing hygiene bags, working at food pantries and giving out free breakfasts.
Shukla, a senior studying biology and Spanish, is involved on campus as a WISCIENCE Research peer leader, a Wisconsin Waale A Capella singer and an undergraduate researcher at the Wisconsin Institute for Medical Research. She hopes to continue on to medical school after graduation.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you first become involved in work revolving around housing inequality and homelessness?
As a pre-med student, I was looking for health-related volunteering opportunities around Madison, and I came across a COVID-19 health assessment volunteer with a Porchlight emergency shelter. As volunteers, we would ask every guest who's coming in what their symptoms were and take their temperature. Although it seems monotonous, it was great because we actually got to talk to people and hear their stories and their daily struggles. That's what really got me interested more in homelessness and housing equity, I suppose.
Why do you believe it is important to advocate for and support those affected by homelessness?
Homelessness doesn't just mean not having a house, it comes with so many other things like not having a job, losing self-confidence, losing connections with people, not having access to health care, all these things. They're a vulnerable population in society, and they don't necessarily have the resources they need. It's important for people who do have the privilege of housing to stand up for those who don't have those same privileges. And I think it means a lot to them as well.
What keeps you coming back and continuing to serve the greater community?
Definitely the people.
Everyone involved, not just the people who are coming and being served, but also the people who help serve as well. Karen Andro who works at First United Methodist Church does a lot of outreach with the homeless population. She's an angel and has a great connection with the homeless community in Madison.
There's also the population that we help to serve; it's just really fun hearing what they have to say. It's not always dark and sad. Obviously, there's a lot of sad stories involved, but sometimes we'll joke around and they'll tell me how work was. So it's very friendly in a way and I really enjoy that.
Why are you passionate about serving the homeless population and addressing housing inequity?
I want to not just work in a big hospital, but also in a clinic where I can work with either rural or vulnerable populations. This is one way for me to get more exposure to that and reinforce that that's something I want to do. It’s something that I enjoy doing and can get more first-hand experience and realize that this is important, and it's a calling for me.
Why is housing equity important for the Madison community?
It's an important issue because as I mentioned earlier, housing is what gives you stability; it gives you a place to sleep at night and a place to keep your things safe. It's a place for you to connect with friends and family and that's not something a lot of people get to do.
Housing equals stability is the simple way to put it.
How would volunteering and being exposed to different parts of greater Madison benefit the average student here at UW?
My first time volunteering off campus, I remember leaving and seeing all these houses and neighborhoods — it felt like a whole different world.
We're in a bubble and I was so mind boggled by the contrast between on and off campus. I think students should take the time to volunteer at least a couple times off campus because then you really realize that this is home for a lot of people. It's not where we study.
What's great about Madison is that there is a huge community service component to the school. UW-Madison is also a research powerhouse. I think that research and volunteering are two things that if you are a UW-Madison student, you should definitely try to get involved in. Serving the community that you're a part of, even if it's temporary, feels like a duty for me and if other people got exposed to it, they might feel the same.
Being involved so heavily in this sphere, you must have some fond memories. What has been your favorite event or volunteer opportunity?
This past summer we went and helped a man who needed to move and was using a wheelchair, so he wasn't able to do it on his own. I knew it meant a lot to him that we helped out. He was a really interesting person, and it was nice to work with a group of volunteers and friends as well.
It’s your final year as an undergraduate at UW-Madison. What are you excited about the most this year?
I'm excited to hang out more with my friends this year, because last year we obviously couldn't while being quarantined half the time. Maybe even meeting new people that I would have met during COVID-19 times but didn't get to — just continuing to be a college student and enjoying it as much as I can!
How can students get involved with the housing equity team?
I would go to the Social Justice Hub website and then go to the Housing Equity tab. There should be my contact information and a spreadsheet linked. We have all the different volunteer opportunities that are going on during the semester, and students can sign up for volunteer opportunities there, show up to events and have a good time.