The homeless class goes to college

When it comes to people without a place to live, the city has for years walked a precarious tight rope. On the one hand, it funnels more than a million dollars to organizations such as Coalition for the Homeless. On the other, it enforces hard-line rules to keep the vagrants off downtown streets.

Indeed, the city's problems mirror those of the national government, which has reverted from open-ended welfare to a stricter "workfare" system. However, since President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty" began in the 1960s, neither federal nor local officials have had much success in treating the root causes of homelessness. Government handouts have only treated the symptoms, providing food, shelter or medical attention but doing little to help homeless people live.

So the problem grows. According to activists, as many as 3 million Americans spend at least one night a year on the streets. And many of them are not the kinds of people you might think: Only 25 percent have drug, alcohol or mental problems, activists claim; fewer than 6 percent are homeless by choice. About one-fourth actually have full or part-time jobs and are forced onto the streets only by a lack of affordable housing.

Now, a humanities professor at Valencia Community College is spearheading an effort to address the problem at its heart -- with a dose of arts, literature and philosophy. On the street, depression and low self-esteem form a vicious cycle, says the professor, John Scolaro. But, he adds, "Everyone, regardless of their condition in life, has unlimited potential. Some people see that in themselves and others do not."

Scolaro's plan for empowerment is to offer homeless Central Floridians what is known as the "Clemente course in the humanities," beginning next year. The yearlong program plays off the adage that knowledge is power. So far, in the 32 colleges in the U.S., Canada and Mexico that have such classes, they've produced remarkable results: Fifty-five percent of the enrollees complete the course, and of those, 60 percent keep pursuing their higher education. Today, the course boasts more than 1,000 graduates, and 600 more homeless students join the rolls each year.

"At this point, we're running a university for the poor," says Clemente founder Earl Shorris. His 1997 book, "Riches for the Poor," detailed his basic premise that impoverished people have been shorted the quality of life that the humanities provide. Instead, they learn to react to the drugs, violence and poverty that surrounds them.

"My notion was to find some way to enable people to think reflectively," he says. Knowledge of the arts, history, philosophy and literature could connect the disenfranchised to the ebb and flow of society, he suggests. Traditional training programs have provided them only limited knowledge, whereas the humanities offers them endless possibilities, he explains.

The first-year college-level curriculum also teaches basic reading and writing skills, which can help students present themselves better at job interviews. "It's a starting point," Scolaro says.

Shorris set up the first course in 1995 at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in New York City, and the concept has spread rapidly, locating at prisons as well as colleges. In Florida, the St. Petersburg and Tampa campuses of the University of South Florida already offer the course.

Scolaro first heard Shorris on a morning interview with National Public Radio last May and immediately fell in love with his ideas. "In my mind, I said that `the Clemente program` will fit at Valencia in some way, shape or form," he says. Over the next six months, Scolaro spread Shorris' book around campus, lined up administration support and applied for a grant from the Florida Humanities Council.

Last week, the FHC awarded more than $22,000 for Scolaro and his partners to develop the course. In the next year, Scolaro will have to tie up loose ends -- such as where to have the class (neither Valencia campus is practical, given that most homeless don't have cars) -- and line up more funding, probably from the National Endowment for the Humanities, before the VCC administration will give final approval.

"We want to make a difference," says Kelly Caruso, a member of the Clemente advisory committee and founder of the Ripple Effect, a nonprofit organization that feeds the homeless Saturday mornings at Lake Eola. "We're tired of throwing money at the problem and it only getting bigger."

While the Clemente course may well help at least some homeless folks, will it also change the public's perception of the disadvantaged?

The program "will cast them in a different light," Scolaro suggests. "Maybe the biases will be revised. I believe that homeless and poor people do not need anybody to save them from homelessness and poverty. You can, however, create the conditions `so they` can extricate themselves."

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