A time to advocate: Intrepid crew of undergrads lend a hand to Amherst-area homeless

Last modified: Friday, February 14, 2014
The young man appeared to be in his 20s with closely cropped beard, T-shirt, jeans and tattoos on his arms. He could have been a classmate of the college women he was chatting up on a recent Tuesday night.

“I’ve got to get my life going,” he told one of them, University of Massachusetts senior Shirin Hakim, a big grin on his face. “You can’t pick up girls living in a homeless shelter.”

Hakim laughed. “You are doing everything right,” she said. “You’re making great strides.”

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Hakim, 21, and three other women were at Craig’s Place homeless shelter on North Pleasant Street in Amherst to help him and others spending the night there find their way to resources beyond a meal and a bed.

The man told Hakim about a job he’d applied for that day and asked about signing up for health insurance and food stamps. Then he wanted to know where he could get guidance on a police matter.

“That is a complicated situation,” she replied. Hakim had advice on the job search and insurance. The police issue would take consultation with Legal Services. “We’re going to find someone who can help you.”

By Friday she’d have a packet of information for him. And, she said, if he didn’t have good news about his latest job application, they would sit down and work on others.

“I like it,” he said.

Hakim, fellow UMass senior Maggie Spring and Christine Miranda, a junior at Amherst College, started the student advocacy program in the fall, recruiting 20 college students to take regular shifts covering six nights a week at the shelter, located at the First Baptist Church. Late last month Kevin Noonan, executive director of Craig’s Doors — A Home Association, which runs the shelter, made it an official program.

“We’re the go-to people for guests if they need to learn about resources in the area,” said Hakim.

Since the cold-weather shelter opened for the season in November, the students have helped more than 30 people find de-tox services, food stamp applications, bus passes and housing assistance, said Noonan. “They are a tremendous asset.”

The tech-savvy college students are in their element helping those who often have little experience navigating the online world, a place where most information and applications are found these days. “We have the Internet at our fingertips,” said Hakim, as she helped Amherst College sophomore Grace Nash sign on to the computer program she would need for that night’s work. “What better way to get students involved in helping.”

Driven to help

Wearing a pink sweater and black skirt, leggings and dressy boots, Hakim radiated cheerfulness. Talking rapidly, she darted from room to room making sure the students were set up with their laptops and to-do lists before the doors opened at 9:15 p.m. She frequently apologized to me for her perpetual motion. “I have so much to tell you. I am just so enthusiastic about this.”

Hakim, who moved to Amherst with her family as a sixth-grader, is a student in the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass, majoring in public health and pre-med. Her parents, Michael and Nasrin Hakim, immigrants from Iran, are both physicians, a career she intends to pursue as well. She has one sister, a senior at Amherst Regional High School.

Community service has been a part of Hakim nearly all of her life. She remembers reading to nursing home patients when she was in elementary school, and in high school she was president of the Community Service Club, volunteered at the Not for Bread Alone soup kitchen and became the only youth member of its board of directors. She also donated her time at the Amherst Survival Center.

“Community service has just always been my passion,” she said.

That passion grew as she pondered her future. “In college I was very interested in science and public health and every extra curricular activity I got involved in just kept bringing me back to the concept of health,” she said. “My theory is that if you are not in good health, physically and mentally — or just have the resources to eat properly — it is so difficult to progress and have a fair chance at life. That made me even more passionate to pursue a career in medicine.”

Inspired in Cambridge

The Commonwealth Honors College, she said, encourages community engagement and she has embraced that. As a junior she spent the fall semester at Harvard University through the UMass domestic exchange program where she worked in a student-run homeless shelter in Cambridge. It has a program similar to the one she has started here. “I thought this is such a neat way to get homeless people in touch with resources.”

When she returned to UMass, she enlisted her friend and classmate Spring and headed over to Craig’s Place.

The pair started volunteering at the shelter two or three nights a week and learning all they could about area resources. They discussed their idea with Noonan and shelter director Rebekah Wilder, who were enthusiastic, and met Miranda, an Amherst College junior, who was already volunteering at the shelter. She signed on to recruit students on her campus.

The women posted fliers and used online and campus resources to solicit applicants and drew 35 for 20 slots. It is a strictly volunteer effort. No academic credit is involved, except for Hakim, who is focusing her senior honors thesis on the program. She is hoping, however, that it will become a credited course next year.

Hakim interviewed the candidates looking for those who seemed mature, sociable, easy to get along with. Everyone had the option to leave after the fall semester, but none did. “It’s amazing how dedicated people are.”

Beyond the bubble

As if on cue, Miranda, a 20-year-old computer science and American studies major from Maryland, arrived. She began working at the shelter last winter, first volunteering and then as a staffer. Like Hakim, she spends multiple nights a week there.

She said she began volunteering as part of an Amherst College program. School was stressful, and she enjoyed leaving campus and meeting new people.

“I liked getting involved in the community in a way that I feel is sometimes hard for college students to do,” she said. “There’s a kind of a bubble that separates Amherst (College) from the town and I like to help myself and other students get past that.” Students, she said, have a big impact on the community. They affect the housing stock, for example, its availability and cost. “We are part of the ecosystem and we should not forget that.”

A similar drive moves Hakim.

“I’ve learned so much from the guests at the shelter. It’s been life-changing,” she said, particularly watching people struggle through this brutally cold winter. Some are so exhausted from dealing with the cold all day, that they don’t bother with dinner or socializing or the students’ offer of assistance, she said. They just curl up on the cots and go to sleep.

“Being homeless is a completely different world,” she said. “It’s such a difficult place to be. I’ve had guests come to me and speak about how they feel so alienated.”

Many, though, find connecting with the college students energizing. The students usually sit and talk with them during dinner, served when they first arrive.

“People have a sense of comfort with the students here,” said Hakim. “It’s important to establish relationships so they will trust us to help them.”

Most know them by name, particularly Hakim, Spring and Miranda.

The night I was there it was: Hi, Bobo. Hey, George. Mitch, hello, I need to see you later, from Hakim as people filed in.

As a food cart piled high with roasted vegetables and meats was rolled in, she chatted with those waiting to eat about wicking socks, neuropathology, diabetes and the difficulty of keeping up with paperwork when all possessions are stuffed in a suitcase.

The individual meetings came later as Hakim sought out those on her list for follow-up sessions or the other students approached newcomers.

There were 29 staying overnight that Tuesday. Those who agreed to meet with the women did so happily.

One young man with a curly mop of hair, barefoot and wearing athletic shorts came bounding out of his session laughing and joking with the man heading in next. “They talk really fast and crack the whip in there,” he said, “‘Do this, this and this by Wednesday or else.’ ”

“It’s really great to have them here,” shelter manager Wilder said of the students. “They work on things our staff just doesn’t have the time to focus on.”

In turn, Hakim wants to trumpet all the good work going on inside the shelter.

“What’s so beautiful about this organization is that everyone — the board, the staff, the volunteers — is so passionate about what they do,” she said. “They stay extra hours. They stay overnight. They are amazing. This place is one of the best things that Amherst has to offer.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.