Students and the Homeless Share a Classroom to Advocate for Change

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picture the homeless ccny colin powell center The group in Professor John Krinsky's class was an unusual one for a City College course. At least, half of it was. Eight of the 16 were College students, the other eight were members of Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization made up of homeless men and women committed to systemic change.

Everyone listened together when one student, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spoke about seeing entire towns built by the American military in a matter of weeks. "'We can do this,' he said," recalled Krinsky.

Krinsky’s academic background is in urban politics, social movements, labor and welfare; he has worked as a housing advocate and an organizer in the homeless movement. It was natural that he was interested in the mission of Picture the Homeless, especially given the organization’s grassroots nature and focus on finding novel strategies for effecting change.

The course, funded by a community-based participatory research grant from the Colin Powell Center, was "a relatively quick romp through affordable housing policy," says Krinsky. It focused on the potential role and pitfalls of mutual housing associations (MHAs) and community land trusts (CLTs), two mechanisms for taking housing out of the private market and placing it in the control of local interests.

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Learning from Each Other

The greatest challenge of organizing the project, said Krinsky, was getting students on board with the idea of learning from the local homeless population. But once things got going, the mutual benefits were striking. The students were exposed to an unusual sort of expertise: homelessness from the point of view of the homeless.

The members of Picture the Homeless benefited as well; they were given the opportunity to speak about- and better understand- their respective situations, and gained a greater knowledge of the forces at play behind the lack of affordable and livable housing in New York City.

Lasting Benefits

In his grant proposal, Krinsky wrote that the course would focus on "bringing the community into CCNY, and then bringing CCNY back out into the community." For the Fall semester of 2011, it did just that. "The Powell Center enabled it to get off the ground," Krinsky says, and "this now has legs, and it will continue into world."

Currently, he and some of his students are working on a larger research project on MHAs and CLTs. Whatever they find, the lasting benefits may have more to do with the 16 course members than any forthcoming report.

For one semester, members of a traditionally ignored population joined with a group of students as partners. It was not done for the homeless but with the homeless, "as equal partners in the decision-making process."

"It's probably the most exciting thing I've done in ten years here as a faculty member," says Krinsky. - Alex Davies

Alex is the communications coordinator at the Colin Powell Center. Find out more about him and other contributing writers here.