2012 fall columnists Credit: Justin Cohen , Brian Collopy

Four thousand Philadelphians won’t have a home to go back to tonight. You might see some of them on a late-night Wawa run or as you emerge from the SEPTA stop at 40th and Market streets.

No student can go without encountering the homeless at some point during his or her four years at Penn. It’s a visible problem associated with living in a city.

Growing up in Washington, D.C., I would walk past the homeless on my way to school every day. But unlike Penn, my high school made a visible commitment to helping the homeless by setting up a center on campus that provided meals, shelter and counseling. Students were encouraged to volunteer at the center during lunch or after school.

Gonzaga College High School has almost 1,000 students who are far younger than Penn’s 20,000. Gonzaga has nowhere near Penn’s financial resources, yet it has a hypothermia shelter and a kitchen and runs a small transitional housing program.

This proves that Penn can do more. It should consider serving the homeless as part of its responsibility as a member of the Philadelphia community.

A center managed by Penn would help a great number of homeless people while costing the University very little. If a high school with a thousand students can accomplish this, Penn certainly can.

With a handful of paid employees and a designated space, this center could be a place on campus for students to volunteer and contribute to their community.

Although there are many ways to measure the impact of such programs, Gonzaga made 12,000 homeless meals during fiscal year 2011. Other less quantifiable but equally important ways to measure impact are the number of homeless people who received counseling or found long-term housing.

Serving the community should be a part of Penn’s mission and addressing homelessness is one way to accomplish this. It shouldn’t be a controversial matter. Serving the homeless is neither a political nor religious issue.

Many students dedicate hours each week to serving the homeless. Groups like Hillel and the Newman Center run soup kitchens and make meals while Van Pelt trades “food for fines” — every canned item a student donates is worth $1 in fines. More Than Pennies allows students to donate a meal swipe to feed the homeless. In the Philadelphia area, Project H.O.M.E. provides housing and counseling services.

But Penn should do more to tackle homelessness on a University level. Creating a center on campus will centralize efforts and make it more of a priority.

The question of homelessness on campus is occasionally brought up. In March, an article in the Daily Pennsylvanian (“On urban campus, panhandling a perennial problem,” 03/29/2012) focused on how homeless people who ask for money are a hassle for some students. The article did little to mention how students could address the problem through volunteering.

Those quoted did not voice opinions that you’d hope to hear from Penn students. Then-Wharton freshman Alexander Izydorczyk said, “the fact that there are panhandlers here certainly decreases the Penn experience.”

This is a disappointing response — it gives an impression that students are bothered by the fact that they may have to encounter the homeless.

Not all the students at Gonzaga College High School held a different perspective, but since the school made serving the homeless part of its mission, they were forced to think about the issue differently.

There will always be some who spin stories to ask for money, but there are 4,000 Philadelphians who are homeless tonight. Many of these people are veterans or victims of the recession; some suffer from addiction or mental illness.

Serving the Philadelphia community should be part of Penn’s mission. While some students have made an effort to address homelessness, Penn has an obligation as a large Philadelphia institution to prioritize this issue and provide a place for students to get involved and contribute.

Brian Collopy is a College junior from Washington, D.C. “A Modest Proposal” appears every other Tuesday. His email address is collopyb@gmail.com Follow him brianc61.

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