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Students Rise to the Challenge for Homeless Connect

Hundreds of students volunteered and served the community’s most vulnerable residents on Nov. 16 as CSUSM hosted Homeless Connect, a one-day resource fair offering critical resources, referrals and services for individuals and families struggling with homelessness. Held in partnership with the Alliance for Regional Solutions – a coalition of North County organizations focused on solving community needs – Homeless Connect was the first large-scale resource event for homeless in the area in nearly a decade.The event connected homeless individuals with area service providers, counselors, available shelter and employment programs, nonperishable food, clothing and various free services including health and dental screenings, legal services and haircuts. A local veterinarian teamed up with the Rancho Coastal Humane Society and offered free vaccinations, flea medication and treats for pets.More than 240 students and University employees provided over 1,000 hours of service and assisted with intake, childcare and food and donation distribution stations. Student nurses and community clinic workers provided health screenings and offered blood pressure checkups, free flu shots and vaccines, as well as tests for diabetes, STDs and pregnancy.“The leadership from the University and the student involvement has been powerful and more than we ever expected,” said Don Stump, president of the Alliance for Regional Solutions and executive director of North County Lifeline. “Students at CSUSM have a high level of commitment to social justice issues and care to really address the core issues of homelessness and poverty.”The San Diego Regional Taskforce for the Homeless, which organizes an annual homeless count every year in January, reports that 20 percent of the county’s homeless population, which climbed to 9,000 people in 2011, resides within North San Diego County.One of the unique features of the event was that each homeless individual was paired with a student docent to help them navigate through the various stations and serve as a guide to answer their questions. The experience also served as an opportunity for students to interact with someone they might not normally come into contact with, and learn about the person not just their needs.For kinesiology undergraduate Kirstee Novak, the experience challenged her perceptions of homelessness and made her more aware of the unique situations each of her clients faced. Among those she guided through the resource fair was Richard, a 57-year-old Vietnam veteran who lives in his van in Vista.“It was a cool experience to talk with Richard and hear his story firsthand,” she said. “I would have assumed he needed clothes or food just because he was homeless, but what he really needed was healthcare, dental services and legal aid.”The collaborative event was inspired by President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, a pilot initiative that launched in August to advance interfaith cooperation and understanding through community service. CSUSM is one of only 250 colleges and universities nationwide selected to participate in the augural challenge.“CSUSM has a long history of giving back to the community,” said Darci Strother, director of the University’s Service Learning program. “Homeless Connect demonstrates the power we can have when we unify around a common cause and face challenging issues head-on as a community, and as a campus.”Additional projects for the Challenge are being planned and will focus on addressing national service priorities, which include domestic poverty and educational opportunity, health services and healthy living, and services for Veterans and military families. Each year, students at Cal State San Marcos annually log more than 160,000 hours of community service valued at over $1.2 million.“As today’s college students, we are the emerging generation that will be stepping up into the role of building America up and it starts by serving others first,” added Novak. “Through service you are able to impact so many lives, and in exchange you learn and grow from the experience. Service empowers us all.”To learn more about getting involved in an upcoming project, visit the Office of Community Service Learning.