College life is about so much more than just sitting in the classroom, learning a lot of stuff so you can get a degree that will land you a career. Along with training for a future job, college also offers you many opportunities outside of the classroom that can help you grow in your faith and in your understanding of the world around you. One such opportunity is Seattle Pacific University's Urban Plunge—a program that allows students to catch a glimpse of what it means to be homeless. As you read this story, prepare for similar life-changing adventures at your own college.
The little boy walking down a Seattle street could have been one of Kevin Malgesini's daycare kids. After all, the child looked like he was about 2, just like many of the children Kevin cares for at his part-time job.
But the Seattle Pacific University freshman didn't even get a chance to smile and say hello. The boy's father made sure of that.
"I started to say hi to him, and his dad pulled him to the other side of the sidewalk and walked past," Kevin, a sophomore, says. "It hurt so bad. I think it was all about how I looked."
And that day, Kevin didn't look like a typical college student. He had shed his usual clothes for ratty jeans, an old pair of running shoes, a rain jacket and a sweatshirt turned inside-out—an outfit he'd worn for several days straight. He hadn't showered in awhile. Nor had he eaten a filling meal. Instead, he'd spent the weekend wandering the streets of Seattle.
Kevin was one of 17 SPU students who spent one weekend last year getting a feel for what it's like to live on the streets. Twice a year, SPU sponsors Urban Plunge, a program designed to give students a taste of homelessness. Participants are grouped in threes or fours and sent out on the streets of Seattle with the clothes they have on their backs and about $2 in cash. Although they spend the night at a pre-arranged church location, they're on their own during the day.
"Urban Plunge was started to give students the opportunity to put a human face on homelessness," says Michael Muto, assistant director of Campus Ministries. "What these students are doing is really imitating Christ. They're leaving their comfort zone to learn and experience what it means to be homeless."
For some participants in last year's February Plunge, that meant flipping a hat upside down on the sidewalk and using it to attract spare change from passersby. For others, it meant seeking out a meal at homeless shelters. But for all of the students, spending four days on the streets meant toppling stereotypes, swallowing prideful feelings and learning—in a very real way—powerful lessons about compassion.
Taking the Plunge
As soon as she heard about the program, SPU junior Katrina Amann knew she wanted to take the Plunge.
"It's just something I've always wanted to do," she says. "I thought it would give me a different perspective on how other people live and how blessed I am." For others, though, the decision wasn't as easy.
"I came really close to changing my mind," senior Elizabeth Koch says. "I felt that Satan was trying to get me to come up with all these excuses why I shouldn't go. I was stressed out about school at the time, about grades and stuff. I needed this three-day weekend to get caught up, and I knew if I went I wouldn't be doing any homework at all."
Taking a break from homework wasn't a problem for junior Scott Gronholz. But the thought of participating in yet another service event was.
"To be honest, I wasn't very excited about going," says Scott, who's been on numerous mission trips. "I thought, 'Here's another trip.' While I'd signed up to participate, it was just another thing to do."
The weekend, though, ended up being more than just "another thing to do."
Welcome to the Jungle
Before they hit the streets, all participants attended several meetings that addressed safety issues and offered spiritual encouragement.
"They didn't want to tell us too much about what to expect," Eliza beth says. "We spent a lot of time reading Bible verses about poverty, about homelessness, how God is the father of the fatherless and the widow. And we spent a lot of time in prayer."
Then on Friday afternoon of President's Day weekend, the groups were loaded in the school van and dropped off at various places around Seattle.
"They didn't have any specific place to drop us off—it was just random, totally random," Elizabeth says. "It was almost like I was parachuting out of a plane in the middle of nowhere. I had lived in Seattle all my life, yet I felt like a complete foreigner in my own city."
Next, the groups had to figure out how they were going to spend their time.
"I was really surprised by how boring it was at times," Kevin says. "We all had talked about enjoying the escape from homework and school, but at the same time, we were used to having a schedule."
So they did what seemed natural—they walked. Walking not only filled the time but also provided opportunities to interact with others on the street.
Life on the Streets
It was about 9 p.m., and Scott's group had been walking for 45 minutes, searching for some place—any place—that would serve them dinner. They thought knocking on the closed door of a hot dog shop was a long shot, but they were so tired, hungry and desperate. They felt they had to try. What happened next amazed them.
After switching on his hot dog machines and some music, the owner put his "guests" to work, mopping the floors and cleaning the bathroom. And then the owner dished out the grub.
"He brought out Cokes for all of us," Scott says. "We each got two hot dogs and all the condiments we wanted."
The group left with full stomachs, $10 from the owner and a new understanding of compassion.
"It was so incredible," says Katrina, who was in the same group as Scott. "We were all hungry, and we were all getting grumpy, and this man just opened his doors to complete strangers. We had been arguing with each other when we got there, and we left elated. It changed our whole night."
But not everybody they met was as nice as the guy at the hot dog shop. Katrina remembers two women who immediately placed their hands over their purses when her group approached them. All Katrina and her friends wanted to do was was find out what time it was.
"I can't believe they actually did that," she says. "There's no way we would have ever tried to steal their purses. I don't think we had the respect we would have had otherwise, if we'd looked like students. It's something we didn't expect at all."
Katrina and Scott's group got something else they didn't expect—a lecture.
"One time we were on a bus, and we asked a lady for some money," Scott says. "She said, 'You know, I work for my money, and you guys are trying to get handouts. She gave us this big lecture. We were tempted to stand up and say, 'We go to SPU. We're normal people, too.'"
Not revealing they were college students was one of the most difficult parts of the experience. But it was also an important part. The more they were able to put themselves in the role of a homeless person, the more they would get out of the experience. As the weekend progressed, they did begin to see changes in how they viewed themselves.
"At first we were all very confident," Katrina says. "We had our heads up and were very alert. I think people made more eye contact with us because of our demeanor. At the end of the experience, because we were hungry and tired, we tended to act more like the typical homeless person. We held our heads down."
But even with their heads held low, they couldn't fool everyone. People who really lived on the street could tell they didn't belong there. Elizabeth recalls talking with a homeless man who figured out she was a student.
"He said, 'If you really want to know what it's like, give up your school, give up your home, give up everything. Don't just do this for a weekend.'"
But a long weekend was enough time to give the students at least a glimpse of what it means to be homeless.
"After a couple of days on the street, it gets really depressing," Kevin says. "On the last day of the experience, we ended up sitting all day long. We just got tired of walking. You do what's easiest because you don't have the energy."
After four days on the streets, the groups returned to campus sporting grubby clothes, lots of memories and a new appreciation for God's goodness toward them.
"The experience really made me look at my life," Katrina says. "It made me say, 'Look at how blessed I am, coming back to this nice warm dorm and my clothes and my things.'"
For Elizabeth, the experience renewed her excitement over her major. "When people used to ask me about my major I'd say, 'social work' without much excitement in my voice. But now I am excited about the chance to work with people who are like those I met on the street."
Maybe most importantly, they all learned to look at the homeless a little bit differently.
"When you walk down the street, you don't think to yourself, God loves me more than these people, but you feel it," says Scott. "You feel you are important and that these people blew it somehow in life. But God loves everybody equally."
"A lot of people just pretended they didn't see us," Kevin says. "That was one of the hardest things— for people to pretend we didn't exist. I'm not going to spend every free moment volunteering at a homeless shelter. But one thing I can do is not look away from homeless people when I see them on the street. They're homeless, but they're still people."
Homeless people are, indeed, people—individuals made in the image of God and who deserve to be treated with love and respect. That's what Katrina, Scott, Elizabeth and Kevin not only believe as a fact—but also believe way down in their hearts. And they believe it because one weekend they decided to take the Plunge.