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Students eat with homeless people at Hillel Credit: Alexandra Fleischman

When Glenn Bryan began working at Penn in 1993, roughly 75 people slept in a homeless camp every night between DuBois College House and the Free Library of Philadelphia.

“It was like tent city,” recalled Bryan — assistant vice president of the Office of Government and Community Affairs — of the makeshift lodging that covered half a block of campus.

In the last 20 years, Penn has made an effort to help a community that has trouble helping itself.

Whereas sleeping on campus was common in the early 90s, it is very rare now, Police Chief Mark Dorsey said.

Since campus is constantly surveyed by University City Police, Philadelphia Police, the Division of Public Safety and Allied Barton security guards, sleeping persons are woken and offered transportation to a shelter by the city’s Outreach Coordinating Center.

According to Social Policy professor Dennis Culhane, most of the panhandlers that inhabit high-foot-traffic areas — like outside Wawa and the 39th block of Walnut Street — are not actually homeless.

“Many pretend to be homeless because it’s a kind of performance art to extract money from naive students,” he said. “People who are homeless are very afraid of interventions with police or others, so they usually try to conceal themselves.”

Penn Police tend to find the homeless camped under the bridge near the Levy Tennis Pavilion, near the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania or in the doorway of the School of Veterinary Medicine, Culhane added.

DPS advises students who come across homeless people to contact the police, call the rescue hotline at 215-232-1984 or direct the homeless to one of the free meals on campus that the University City Hospitality Coalition serves six days a week.


The coalition — run by Penn students and West Philadelphia community leaders — provides food at different campus locations for 60 to 120 guests each night. The program began in 1984 after a homeless man named Stanley Biddle froze to death overnight on 38th Street.

Though UCHC is not a shelter, it is not a typical soup kitchen either. Penn students started and currently staff legal and medical clinics every Wednesday night.

“The clinic is the best part of my week because you actually get to sit down with a client with an actual problem,” second-year law student Anna Carlsen said.

People can ask any civil non-criminal legal questions, but most are related to reasons why people become homeless — eviction, losing possessions when evicted and not understanding government paperwork.

Around 10 law students help six to eight clients each week.

“A lot of homeless people are in and out of mental institutions,” Carlsen said. “We’re connecting them back into the system and giving them stability.”

Lori Atkinson, a first-year medical student, runs the health clinic with other medical students and undergraduates.

Even though many homeless people have chronic illnesses, the clinic focuses on giving them basic nutritional advice. The students check blood pressure and pass out vitamins and basic medication.

“Even if they have Medicaid and can see a doctor, many cannot afford over-the-counter medication,” Atkinson explained. “They need us there every week, so even in the snowstorm last Wednesday, we all trekked out.”


"No matter what type of service you’re doing, it’s important to get a broader perspective on larger issues and trends,” said Thomas Byrne, a doctoral student in the School of Social Policy and Practice. Byrne — who has been Culhane’s research assistant for three years — emphasized the importance of recognizing the historical and political context of any social problem.

Barrett Bridenhagen, an associate fellow at the Center for Public Health Initiatives, teaches a course called Urban Health. She concurred that even though between 83 and 96-percent of the population is considered “urban,” there’s still a need to bring visibility and understanding to vulnerable populations in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

“If a group of the population isn’t receiving health care, there are downstream effects for other parts of the population interacting with them,” she explained, relating urban problems to the lives of Penn students.

According to Culhane, there probably isn’t another university in the United States with as large a number of faculty focused on homelessness and involved in impacting federal policy.

“When most people think of homelessness, they think of service,” he explained. “Perhaps there is an even better contribution.”

Many of Culhane’s students have obtained policy jobs around the country. College senior and Undergraduate Assembly Vice President Mark Pan — who took Culhane’s freshman seminar Homelessness and Urban Inequality — hopes to eventually get involved with larger scale administrative policy after teaching or working for a non-governmental organization for a few years.

“If I hadn’t taken these courses, I only would have known about visible homelessness and visible poverty,” he said. However, Pan also emphasized that learning about an issue isn’t everything.

“It’s important to see an issue firsthand, and then take a course,” he explained. “Unless you have that emotional pull to solve the issue, taking a course won’t do much.”


Several of Penn’s peer institutions are also faced with the challenge of nearby homelessness.

The Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project — Yale University’s student-run nonprofit — oversees a total of 22 programs to benefit these populations, either through service, research or advocacy.

Students operate “Food Rescue,” bringing leftover dining hall food to soup kitchens, and participate in New Haven Cares — a voucher system that allows people to make donations to panhandlers that cannot be used to buy alcohol or cigarettes.

Yale sophomore and YHHAP co-director Amalia Skilton said that Yale’s urban environment gives people world perspective.

“While many Yale students are economically very privileged, many people around us are below the poverty line,” she said.

North of New Haven, Harvard University’s campus is home to the only student-run shelter in the country. The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter — created in the mid-1980s — is open from November 15 through April 15 and usually houses 24 people.

“This isn’t a huge operation. We’re not fixing homelessness by doing this,” said Harvard junior and the shelter’s co-director Jacob Cedarbaum. “Even though we have just a handful of guests that cycle through the season, hundreds of Harvard students get to come into contact with this community that’s so often ignored or written off.”

Penn student groups have proposed creating a shelter on campus in years past, but Culhane expressed opposition to the possibility.

“The more we build them, the more we fill them,” he said. “We should be working on efforts that reduce the number of shelters.”

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