Hadley Simmons '13 (facing), helps a client pick out clothes at the St. Vincent de Paul Society Ozanam Wellness Center, as part of a weeklong immersion in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. Photo by Lucas Waldron '13.
Students at the University of San Francisco spent a week living at a wellness center for the homeless and recovering drug addicts, cooking for them and listening to the intimate details of their lives in support groups and addiction recovery meetings — an experience that brought home the realities faced by marginalized populations and dispelled previously held misconceptions.
Homeless college grads
Some of the shelter’s clients were college graduates from New York University, the University of Southern California, and the University of California, Berkeley, said Rebecca Lozano ’13, who struggled to understand how such highly educated people could so easily fall through the cracks of the U.S. social safety net.
“Homelessness and addiction should not be associated only with specific groups of individuals,” said Lozano, who came away from the University Ministry Social Justice Program immersion with a better understanding of how homelessness or addiction can take hold of someone. “They’re issues that can affect anyone at any time.”
For Lozano, the immersion embodied USF’s mission to raise awareness and encourage students to ask what can be done to address such problems.
Homelessness, addiction, recovery
“I thought that because I study sociology, I’m more aware of the social injustices of our society,” said Emily Densmore ’13. “But having lived at the wellness center, I gained an entirely new perspective on social struggles.”
The students lived at the Ozanam Wellness Center, part of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood for a week, where they distributed donated clothes and packed toiletries and hygiene kits for the center’s clients. They also joined the homeless and recovering addicts in meditation and spirituality sessions and spoke to the center’s clients and counselors about relapses from sobriety, discrimination, and the struggle to start fresh.
The center’s approach is designed to treat both the physical and spiritual sides of a client by offering yoga, tai chi, massage, art therapy classes, and more.
Lives on the line
The students gained a first-hand perspective of the complex realities faced by the poor and marginalized on a daily basis, said Frank Buckley S.J., who developed the class with Mary Jane Niles, USF professor of biology. Buckley founded Ozanam in 2009 and is a post-doctoral fellow in USF’s Counseling and Psychological Services Department.
“Taking students beyond textbooks and classrooms to show them the faces and lives of people in the community is transformational. People flourish as a result of social connection and that, above all else, is what the wellness center is about,” Fr. Buckley said.