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A Transformative Approach to Tackling Homelessness and Poverty

Sena posing with students

Stephanie Sena’s teaching philosophy is inspired by bell hook’s book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Hooks explores how education can either enforce inequitable systems, or create opportunities for freedom and justice. Sena’s teaching is meant to be the latter: transformative and liberating.

“I believe that students are close to the seat of power,” notes Sena. “This proximity to power not only puts them in a position to create meaningful change, but also brings with it the obligation to help our society become more just and equitable. Students are often eager to make a difference and can do so once they are provided with the intellectual framework and a path forward.”

Seeing that path, Sena opened a homeless shelter in Philadelphia, staffed by her Villanova students. They called it the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP). SREHUP got her students out of their comfortable environment and exposed them to people and circumstances that have changed their world views.

SREHUP was modeled after a student-run shelter near Harvard, where Sena took her students to see it in action. SREHUP opened its doors on November 1, 2011 and launched chapters at Swarthmore College, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Temple University, in addition to Villanova. Between these five chapters, SREHUP engaged over 300 student volunteers in its work and aided in housing and serving up to 70 guests experiencing homelessness on any given night.

In 2012, Sena developed a course around SREHUP for the Center for Peace and Justice called, “The History of Homelessness.” The course, which has been taught ever semester since being introduced, explores the diverse societal perceptions of homelessness and poverty, and how those perceptions have shifted over time. Students also study changes in government policy and how changing policy has affected people experiencing homelessness.

The course provides a framework for understanding the root causes of the expansion of homelessness in the U.S. and conveys a sense of the experience of homelessness and its consequences. To that effect, it examines issues surrounding poverty, specifically: race, labor, prison, education and housing. There is exploration of the current efforts to meet the immediate needs of the homeless. The course empowers students to advocate for sustainable changes which can prevent homelessness. Students glean a deeper understanding of homelessness through readings and class discussions, and through interacting with people who are experiencing homelessness at SREHUP.

“The unmatched level of energy and enthusiasm of young adults gives college students an advantage when dealing with the struggles of the marginalized and oppressed,” Sena says. “With my course as a supplement to their experiential learning, they also start to comprehend the structural barriers that are in place which make it difficult to climb out of homelessness. Liberating education that teaches to transgress can and should happen both inside and outside the classroom setting. Education that is liberating and teaches students to transgress helps create the compassionate leaders of tomorrow who are ready to tackle poverty and homelessness.”

Throughout the semester, students are assigned readings related to poverty, race, prison, housing, education and solutions. Students have been encouraged to write and complete assignments tying these topics to COVID-19. Sena also assigns podcasts and documentaries that offer a deeper dive into the issues to help foster engagement and different ways of thinking about the issues. Students enjoy the discussions and see the benefit of the course.

“This is truly a captivating course where you get to absorb all of the great dialogue and information that we discuss throughout the course,” said Matti Gibson, ’21 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “This is a course I never would have thought about taking. It’s opened new doors for me on campus and generated conversation between me and my roommates. It’s easy to see why Professor Sena is so enthusiastic and passionate about this subject.”

There is no silver bullet to solve these issues, but Sena hopes that this class is just the first step for her students.

“While in their peak period of optimism, college students are able to join the fight to end homelessness with an extremely hopeful disposition,” Sena says. “This enhances their genuine fearlessness when dealing with tough situations. The experience of running a shelter allows these students to break out of their normal and comfortable environment. They put names and faces to the problem of homelessness and develop relationships with the homeless guests that compel them to reconsider some of their ideas about poverty, homelessness and citizenship.”

“Captivating Courses” is a feature introducing readers to some of the unique classes offered at Villanova University. Numerous courses across the University’s six schools and colleges provide students the opportunity to examine interesting and relevant topics. These features will give you a glimpse into some of these courses and the experiences they provide students. Find all of the Captivating Courses here.