Today is graduation day at Indiana University. Lots of parents here, still trying to herd their children.
Yesterday I was sitting in my car on the internet with my iPhone at the Chocolate Mousse (“a Bloomington landmark since 1933”), waiting for my housemate Jim, who was waiting in line for ice cream before he tackled his next lawn with our new Fiskars hand mower. Jerky music was blaring out of some hidden source. I sat there, increasingly annoyed.
Then, all of a sudden, I came upon a riveting article from the Indiana Student Daily newspaper. About the Ubuntu student group that wants to help the homeless situation here in Bloomington. The loud cacophony fell away. I was inside these IU students’ generous loving hearts, beautifully matched by the smooth flow of the student writing.
May 3, 2013
by Jennifer Sublette
Samantha Harrell is a typical graduating senior. She is studying for finals, preparing for graduation and embracing the last few days of her undergraduate education. However, unlike most seniors, Harrell is also spending the last moments of her undergrad career starting a homeless shelter.
“I’m not doing this for charity,” she said. “I’m doing this because when people don’t have shelter, that hurts me. That’s what drives me. Some people might see it as unhealthy that I think this way, but when 60 or 70 people I have been working with suddenly don’t have shelter, it motivates me to make change.”
Harrell and her classmates are starting Ubuntu in response to the closure of Genesis House, a previous summer shelter servicing Monroe County. Genesis House closed due to lack of funding. Harrell was a volunteer at Genesis House all three seasons it was open.
When she found out the shelter was not reopening, she said she figured someone would do something.
“Everyone thought that someone else would take care of it,” Harrell said. “It wasn’t until late February that me and my friend realized no one was doing anything about it. So, we did.”
In late February, Harrell sent out email messages asking for volunteers to gauge community interest. She received a generous response.
“We wanted to resist the media and the churches’ sentiment that every volunteer was burned out and we wouldn’t have the capacity for the shelter,” she said. “We received so many people enthusiastically saying ‘yes.’ The community really wanted to do this and needed someone to take charge.”
Harrell said she wants the shelter to be focused more on working with people and less on charity. This is the reason they named their organization “Ubuntu,” a humanistic philosophy concerning people’s relations with each other.
“There isn’t really a definition, but I see the meaning behind Ubuntu as this message of solidarity of community,” she said. “It reflects the social work backing of the shelter. We want to be on the same level, have empathy that goes so far it turns into solidarity.”
Jon Dauterman, also a graduating senior from the School of Social Work, is one of 15 students working with Harrell to open Ubuntu. Dauterman will be one of the site leaders.
“I’ve been involved with homeless shelters since my freshman year,” Dauterman said. “Social work taught me valuable skills like how to empower people. I think empowerment is important when working with homeless people.”
Harrell also emphasized empowerment as a core belief of the shelter.
“We want to let the guests put their own cots up and take them down in the morning,” she said. “It helps them feel like they are part of it. It won’t be a requirement, but allowing people to help if they want to, I think, will be empowering.”
Rod Gesner has been a homeless citizen of Bloomington for two years. He lives in a van with his dog, Kiaayo, and sells his artwork on Kirkwood Avenue.
“I’ve never been a big fan of shelters,” Gesner said. “I’ve talked to people who have had to suffer through the night with a drunk lying next to them, and they ended up not getting any sleep.”
He was pleasantly surprised about Ubuntu.
“I think students reaching out and trying to help long-term is a great thing,” Gesner said. “I’d like to shake their hand.”
Dauterman and Harrell are both students with experience working with the homeless and say their background with social work will offer valuable credibility with the community.
“Our emphasis on leadership is big,” Dauterman said. “It’s not run by students, but by professional social workers.”
The group has the volunteer force they need lined up, as well as donated materials from Genesis. However, the group currently does not have a space for the shelter and find this to be its biggest obstacle. Harrell said Interfaith Winter Shelter has also been trying to expand its space unsuccessfully.
“We’re having trouble getting our foot in the door,” Harrell said. “Our offer is different from Interfaith’s though. They were trying to convince people to run the shelter.”
The difference is that Ubuntu has eight social workers and an abundance of volunteers that are willing to run the shelter by themselves as well as donations and materials to aid in the set up.
“We simply need space, but we feel like we’re getting closer everyday,” he added.
Harrell said they currently have enough donations for a barebones shelter. They would not be able to offer food or laundry services, only a bed. They have had offers of more donations if the shelter finds a home.
“It’s kind of a catch-22,” she said. “People are interested in helping, but will only donate if we have space.”
Harrell said she and her classmates are determined to find a place for the shelter, and are continuing to spread the word of its imminent opening. While Ubuntu’s budget is more than half of their surrounding shelters, Harrell has one luxury she said she hopes to offer.
“I’d like to be able to offer coffee,” Harrell said. “Coffee is a huge thing because coffee makes you feel like you are home.”
AK again: This morning, on Facebook, a message from Charis Heisey, one of the leading rabblerousers (I say this with great affection) in the current activist push in Bloomington to address the real needs of especially homeless folks with addictions or mental health issues.
And the beat goes on!