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Chipping In: The Many Ways OCU Homeless Initiatives Teach Service, Aid Community

The many ways OCU homeless initiatives teach service, aid community

by April Marciszewski

OCU’s Kappa Sigma fraternity partnered with Professor Leslie Long’s Bible and Culture class to clean up and renovate Lazarus Community, which provides transitional housing for those who experienced homelessness. Students Anthony Giordano, Jeremy Creek and Kat Davis clear yard debris to make way for vegetable and flower gardens

When Ken Evans returned to Oklahoma to become Oklahoma City University president, he was struck by the visibility of homelessness in the city compared to a decade earlier.

Oklahoma City has an estimated 1,500 people experiencing homelessness on any given night, served by nonprofit and faith-based organizations—and now also, OCU, in small and large ways across the university.

OCU has incorporated service-learning into classes for many years, but Dean of Students Levi Harrel-Hallmark sees the university as beginning a new chapter of partnering with the greater Oklahoma City community for service. “As Stars, we understand that our community, and our responsibility, expands beyond our campus borders,” Harrel-Hallmark said. “We have a unique opportunity to build relationships and cultivate partnerships that meet the needs of our neighbors while simultaneously educating our students.”

Emma Winters-Difani, adjunct art instructor, created a service-learning class in fall 2021, partnering with the Homeless Alliance’s Fresh StART artists to create designs that students then turned into prints and T-shirts.

“The academic environment can be insulated, but the truth is, it’s temporary, so it’s really important to understand where we are and the people who are surrounding that little island,” Winters-Difani said. “Using the resources that the university has to assist in the community is important. Hopefully students reflect on how community involvement and service are important going forward. Students may not be living in Oklahoma City forever, but whether it’s arts education or people experiencing homelessness, those organizations are going to be anywhere they go.”

Garrett Grantz, a political science and philosophy freshman from Stillwater, Oklahoma, remembers reluctantly giving up video game time as a sixth-grader to spend an hour volunteering. Now, he volunteers weekly by choice and realizes if he gives four hours, he still has 20 for himself.

“We are trying to cultivate a culture of service,” Grantz said. “I think we can definitely make an impact on this corridor. We have 3,000-plus students. An hour a week? That’s 3,000 hours. It’s definitely something that’s doable.”

Last fall, OCU started an ongoing series of service projects led by students called OKConnect. The day of service spent helping five local nonprofits during homecoming week turned out to be students’ favorite—and most attended—homecoming activity, said Andrew Barker, a history education junior from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and last fall’s director of OKConnect.

“I think when you make service engaging and when you are able to serve with your peers, it makes the experience fun and fulfilling,” he said.

He also sees community service taking hold in his fraternity. In fall 2021, Kappa Sigma was looking for a distinguishing factor, and Barker saw an opening for a student organization to lead with service. The 38-member fraternity now has the most community service hours of any student group on campus, clocking more than 800 hours last fall.

They have focused on helping the Lazarus Community in Oklahoma City, a church that evolved to provide transitional housing for those who experienced homelessness, said Barker and Grantz, also a member of Kappa Sigma.

Students have helped renovate and clean the facility inside and out. While volunteering, Barker crossed paths with a resident and experienced service coming full circle with their work having helped Lazarus Community serve people and turn a vision into reality.

“Once you get a taste for being able to help people, it’s such a great feeling, it makes you want to keep doing it,” Barker said. He grew up with a single mom and a twin brother, and they had to rely on social services growing up. “To be able to be in the position to help now, it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world.”

The eviction clinic is one of those types of clinics that every law school should have. This is an issue that every community has. Preventing an eviction is preventing someone from ending up on the streets, quite often. When you bring students into a clinic, you’re making them more aware of the issues that are going on in the community. Hopefully those students go on to work in Legal Aid or volunteer on the weekends because they now know what those issues are.

-Tia Ebarb Matt, J.D., SFHEA - OCU School of Law Director of Experiential Learning

Modeling Service

OCU’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing includes a Community Health Nursing course, in which professors take students to nonprofits such as Skyline and Homeless Alliance, which serve people experiencing poverty and homelessness, respectively. Each semester this year, they have donated food to people living at an intersection less than two miles from campus. Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, wrote in The Oklahoman in January that “development has pushed people into more visible locations, and a lack of low-barrier shelter beds means we see people sleeping outside, making the issue more visible.”

Professors across the university also make volunteering a regular part of their personal lives, which inevitably filters down to their students.

Pam Melson, clinical assistant professor of nursing, helps with a mobile food pantry in the stockyards and cooked for Sisu Youth Services over the holidays because the emergency youth shelter doesn’t have a kitchen. Beth Pitman, clinical assistant professor of nursing, volunteers with the Homeless Alliance, restocking clothing and toiletry donations.

“It’s our brothers; it’s our sisters,” Melson said. “It’s not ‘those’ people.”

Those experiencing homelessness don’t fit into stereotypes, Pitman and others said, especially with rents skyrocketing in Oklahoma City.

“It can happen to any of us. I honestly think people would be surprised who we meet on the street,” Pitman said. “I feel like we’re all just one step away from our worst moment. Being able to relate to people on a human level is important no matter what you do.”

Pitman advises the Black Student Nurses Association and sees the students’ soft spots for vulnerable populations. This year, BSNA President Mikel Kendrick, a nursing senior from Thomson, Georgia, led outreach to Sisu Youth Services, an identity-affirming emergency overnight shelter and resource hub. At Thanksgiving, the group collected two boxes full of winter clothes for youth, and they presented a safe sex education session in March. Pitman said the group plans to have an ongoing partnership with Sisu.

“As an organization, we love doing community outreach and service work and being a vessel for change for the community,” Kendrick said.

Raising Awareness

In fall 2022, OCU partnered with donor Herman Meinders and NorthCare, a local behavioral health provider, to bring former NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher to campus to speak to students and community members about mental illness. He was couch homeless, and his story inspired the 2009 movie "The Blind Side."

The crowd maxed out the auditorium in the Meinders School of Business. Tonya Ratcliff, NorthCare philanthropy principal, saw the partnership as a natural: bringing together a social services agency with the future workforce. Ratcliff was thrilled that Oher’s talk spread the message that resources abound to help people through adversity and trauma.

“They saw this unstoppable force who was in the NFL who was on the ground in tears, not knowing where to turn,” she said. “Mental diagnoses and addiction do not discriminate. We’re all vulnerable, and we all need to know how to ask for help and recognize the signs. Michael Oher gave a very clear message that there is hope.”

This fall, at 7 p.m. on Sept. 12, the Martha Jean Lemon Distinguished Speaker Series will feature Princeton University sociology professor Matthew Desmond, author of the bestseller “Evicted” and the recently released book “Poverty, by America.”

Amy Cataldi, dean of the Petree College of Arts and Sciences, said OCU’s annual speaker series invites a lecturer who brings a diverse perspective and experience to engage with both the on-campus and local community.

“Covering topics that range from prison reform to environmental protection, world religions to the Osage murders, we hope to provide a meaningful dialogue with world-class experts,” she said. “Matthew Desmond’s research and storytelling will give us not only insight into housing insecurity, inequality, homelessness and poverty but may also drive us to consider new solutions, work to develop data-based strategies and forge partnerships in our mission to serve.”

Addressing Issues

Issues surrounding homelessness present educational opportunities, as well as research and service possibilities. Both OCU’s business and law schools are tackling evictions, which have skyrocketed to record numbers with the end of Covid-era tenant protections.

Jacob Dearmon, professor of economics and director of OCU’s Ronnie K. Irani Center for Data Analytics, is working with Associate Dean Robert Greve and an undergraduate student to put Oklahoma court records into a dashboard. This will allow users to see where evictions take place, which landlords file for evictions, which attorneys are used and how successful they are, how effective tenants are with and without attorneys, and more. Dearmon also sees the database as having the potential to drive policy discussions.

The goal is to provide a public service and also “help us better understand the eviction process and the related trauma,” Dearmon said. “Scholarly research has shown that (having a home) is an effective way of keeping people employed. If you don’t have a home, it’s very, very hard to keep a job. Evictions create a cascading effect. It’s on your record, and other places don’t want to rent to you. You start not being able to show up to work, and you get fired. Then you have no money and no place to live.”

Students organized for the largest OCU homecoming service project on record in fall 2022 and participated in an icebreaker before traveling to their volunteer sites. Project co-chair Andrew Barker is pictured at center.

Richard Klinge, director of OCU law school’s pro bono Housing Eviction Legal Assistance program, advocates for tenants in Oklahoma County District Court day in and day out. He sees housing as a fundamental right, especially in a state with a landlord-tenant act dating back to 1978 and lacking tenant protections. Oklahoma County’s eviction “rocket docket” means that tenants can be out of their homes in a matter of days. He points out that “rents are going up horribly, and landlords are getting more aggressive with eviction filings. If people lose their housing, that’s one step closer to homelessness. If you have people in safe and habitable, dependable housing, it’s going to help the community.”

The eviction assistance program started in April 2018 and has helped almost 1,800 families through the support of grants from the Oklahoma Bar Foundation and Inasmuch Foundation. Klinge educates tenants, caseworkers and other lawyers about tenant rights and obligations under the law; provides legal representation and advice to tenants to resolve disputes and avoid eviction; and advocates and educates state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services caseworkers and others statewide.

Besides Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, Klinge is usually tenants’ one hope of legal representation in Oklahoma County. Most can’t afford a lawyer if they can’t afford rent.

“The payback to the public is tremendous,” Klinge said. “It’s not that you win the case every time, but sometimes you get a settlement agreement that may keep the eviction off the record.”

“There’s a lot of good people working on these issues,” he said. “I’m excited about the momentum I feel.”

The program’s capacity will increase this fall with the creation of a legal clinic. Six to eight students will work under Klinge’s supervision. Tia Ebarb Matt, clinical professor of law and the law school’s director of experiential learning, said the students will staff drop-in sessions, work with clients and host educational workshops for various groups, including landlords, who “don’t always know what they’re doing wrong.”

“When you bring students into a clinic, you’re making them more aware of the issues that are going on in the community,” Ebarb Matt said. “We should be educating our students but also helping to educate the public so they know their rights and the processes. The law school is part of the community.”

Service Identity

“OCU’s motto of servant-leadership really is present,” said Ben Ball, finance and economics freshman from Choctaw and new OKConnect service project director. “People are really caring. When they say, ‘If you need anything, I’m here for you,’ they really do mean it. It certainly makes me proud to be a student here and someday be an alumnus.”

Melanie Shelley, executive director of the Ann Lacy School of American Dance and Entertainment, forged a partnership with Positive Tomorrows, a transitional school for students experiencing homelessness, in 2006. “That was when service-learning was really starting to blossom at OCU.” Shelley and her dance costume lab students sewed Halloween costumes for the young students, according to their wishes, and the tradition has continued ever since, delighting young people and showing them people care for them. (See story, page 6.)

“The majority of students probably have never connected with the homeless population,” she said. “This is our longest running community outreach.”

The dance school also offers scholarships in its Community Dance Academy, allowing lower-income children to participate, and they’ve volunteered in other ways over the years, once helping teach multiplication tables through dance at a local elementary school.

“Giving back to the community is part of who OCU is,” Shelley said. “We’re, of course, prepping people for the industry, but also respecting others. All of these service projects teach students that.”

President Evans wrote to the OCU community in spring 2022, announcing a focus on homelessness. With city upgrades in the works, “the neighborhoods around 23rd Street will begin to transition and urbanize in ways that will permanently change the affordability of housing in the area. OCU has a tradition of meaningful connections in the community and advocating for the disadvantaged. I am betting we can be the catalyst that changes this causal progression.”

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