Helping the Homeless: Intradepartmental Collaboration to Assist a Growing Population

Holly Nevarez, Mary Portis and Linda McAfee Bilsborough
California State University, Chico, USA


Three instructors collaborated to create three related and complementary, but independent service learning projects that addressed the needs of the homeless. This intradepartmental collaboration resulted in a health fair, the collection of over 40,000 cans of food and 2,000 pairs of socks, and social marketing materials for use by local agencies serving the homeless. The students developed professional skills and witnessed the power of collaboration. This article outlines the service projects and the advantages of intradepartmental collaboration to help meet a community need.


In 2008 there were 664,414 homeless people the United States (United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2009). Due to the economic crisis that the United States has been facing, it is believed that the number of homeless is increasing. In addition to homelessness, it is estimated that 14.6% of the population (approximately 49.1 million people) lived in food insecure households in 2008 (United States Department of Agriculture, 2009). More recent homelessness rates and food insecurity numbers are not available, but it can be assumed there is a direct correlation between homelessness, food insecurity, and unemployment. In 2009 the unemployment rate in the United States reached its highest point in 26 years at 9.3% (United States Department of Labor, 2010). If increasing numbers of people are unemployed, it is probable that increasing numbers of people are food insecure and homeless. The local food bank and shelters reported an increase in persons and families seeking meals and assistance at the same time as donations from individuals and businesses were decreasing.

There are several publications describing service learning projects at schools and universities across the country which respond to the needs of the homeless. Many of these programs describe beneficial outcomes for college students as well as progress toward meeting the needs of the homeless (Brown, Bone, Gillis, Treherne, Lindamood, & Marsden, 2006; Buch & Harden, 2011; Feen-Calligan, 2008). Any work that provides assistance to this population should be commended. However, a potential shortcoming of published projects is the number of college students involved in the service learning projects.

Projects are often limited to one class of students per semester (Brown et al., Feen-Calligan, Hunt, 2007). The authors of this article collaborated to include approximately 170 college students from three different classes.

Intradepartmental Collaboration

The authors teach three different levels of health education classes and each of the classes cover the content of homelessness, poverty, hunger, and food insecurity. For the 2009/2010 academic year the authors’ institution designated The Soloist by Steve Lopez as the “book in common.” Using this book as a starting point, the instructors determined the issue of homelessness could easily be expanded into a service learning component.

The three courses involved in the collaboration were: (1) Personal Health, a freshman level general education course that serves a feeder into the health education major; (2)Community Health, a junior level introductory survey course mandatory for health education majors and minors; and (3) Health Education Theory, Planning and Practice, a senior level professional process course emphasizing program planning and implementation.

All students enrolled in any of these three classes were asked to read The Soloist. Within the individual courses all students were taught about poverty, homelessness, and accompanying health concerns. Stereotypes of homelessness were also addressed. Additionally, community agencies and governmental programs that provide assistance to the homeless were identified within the course of the project.

The Projects

The instructors met with the local food bank and homeless shelters to explore agency and client needs. The needs were then narrowed down based on course criteria, budget, and time constraints. Final projects were selected based on the project’s ability to provide for the homeless population as well as meet the needs of the course objectives.

Personal Health: Health Fair

Personal Health is a general education course which also provides students an introduction to health science as a major or minor. Students in this class are typically freshmen or sophomores, and many are undeclared. The course provides a broad overview of all of the dimensions of health, emphasizing the pertinence of each topic to the unique range of health issues facing college students. The adoption of The Soloist as the “book-in-common” allowed students to broaden their concept of health and to consider health issues from the perspective of individuals struggling to meet their basic needs. For this course, a health fair at a local homeless shelter, was the selected service project. The primary objectives from the Personal Health course that were related to homelessness include:

  • Assess individual health status through a self analysis of the six dimensions.
  • Identify unhealthy personal behaviors and develop a plan for modification.
  • Research the problem of homelessness and identify unmet health needs of the local shelter population.
  • Demonstrate ability to conduct health assessment practices and apply to a specific population.
  • Participate in educational health fair and follow-up assessment activities.

Personal Health students researched the growing problem of homelessness in the United States and the local needs for emergency housing. Interviews with a shelter director were invaluable as a resource for better understanding the scope of the homeless problem. While many shelters provide services to men only, women and families are eligible for services at the local facility. Group discussions followed the research phase of the project wherein unmet needs of the guests were identified and ranked in terms of importance.

Subsequent class sessions divided students, depending upon their interest, to specific a need. The students translated the information they researched into the design of an educational booth that they implemented on the day of the fair. The booths included health assessments, information, and fitness activities.

Many of the materials distributed at the fair were solicited by Personal Health students from local businesses. To raise additional funds the students “panhandled” on campus, a concept not unfamiliar to some who are homeless. Pairs of students, each with a cup labeled “Change for Change” disseminated throughout campus in search of donors to the project. During the forty five minute activity, more than one hundred forty dollars was collected from fellow students, faculty, and staff. Funds were used to purchase one hundred pair of white cotton socks, a crucial identified need particularly during winter months.

Community Health: Food Drive

Community Health is a junior level, introductory survey course mandatory for health science majors and minors. Because it is a preliminary course, many topics are introduced. Subject matter within the context of this course that is related to the homeless population include: health care delivery; mental health; alcohol & drug use; infectious and communicable diseases; and program planning. The topics of poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity were also used to meet these specific course objectives:

  • Explain the basic characteristics of communicable, chronic, mental, and environmental health problems.
  • Identify and describe the major specific health problems facing a community.
  • Identify the major issues concerning health problems and their solutions.
  • Explain the various methods for dealing with community health problems.
  • Describe and evaluate the effects of local community organizations on local community health problems.
  • Search online databases, Internet resources, and print-sources of research and program literature.The instructor of this course believed that a food drive for the local food bank/soup kitchen would allow her to reach many of the objectives for the course, provide students with a hands-on experience within a real community agency, and help provide aid to the homeless.Community Health students planned and implemented the food drive for the food bank/soup kitchen. The class was familiarized with the agency by meeting with staff and touring the facility, which helped them learn about the agency and methods for dealing with the community health problem. Next the students brainstormed on ways to collect food. Narrowing potential ideas based on workforce and budget the students decided which methods they would implement for the food drive. This gave the students hands-on experience with program planning and implementation. It was decided that the Community Health students would advertise the food drive by hanging posters throughout the community, and campus; contact the local newspapers, radio stations and television stations to promote the event; solicit local business to have food drives among their employees; team with schools (elementary through high schools) to promote the event among the students; table outside of local grocery stores and on campus to collect cans and cash donations; and solicit door-to-door for donations. The class created timelines for each of these projects and set a goal of 12,000 cans to be collected. Each student signed up to complete at least two hours of work for the project.

    Health Education Theory and Practice – Social Marketing

    Health Education Theory and Practice is a senior level professional process course that allows students to apply the health content they have learned in previous courses to the major program planning theories in the health education to create viable health services in the community. For the homelessness project the students applied social marketing theories and viral marketing techniques to social media marketing campaigns to encourage those with resources for food,

    clothing and shelter to give to those without these resources. Rather than trying to reach an anonymous target audience, social marketing with a viral marketing approach communicates first with those who are already within the sphere of influence and excites them to reach out to others who are in their personal social networks. If the message is relevant and important, people who are connected will communicate and spread the word to each other for you. The specific course objectives were:

  • Analyze your personal social network.
  • Identify social marketing techniques to reach each segment of your personal social network (e.g., direct contact, Email, texting, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, etc.).
  • Identify social marketing messages about homelessness and the needs of the homeless that have the potential to go viral for dissemination to your social network.
  • Create a social media marketing campaign directed toward giving to the homeless using the social networking sites of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flckr, LinkedIn,, Twitter, and Second Life.
  • Implement and evaluate your social media marketing campaign.

The students in this course could choose to market for donations of new socks, cash, food, or clothing. Socks were the most frequently chosen item. Foot problems are an immediate health concern of the homeless. A simple blister can result in a long-term disability or life threatening infection if it isn’t treated.

Individuals who are homeless do not have a change of socks and often go days or weeks without removing their shoes. Poor hygiene, a continuously damp environment around the feet, and lots of time walking leads to dangerous foot problems. Clean, dry socks are a simple step toward better health.

Applying marketing theory, techniques and tools the students identified the type of messages and the format of the messages that would be most effective with their social network. Working in teams of three, students created simple messages for use in Emails, text messages and Facebook, and 3-5 minute films to post on YouTube and Facebook. The films were sent through Email and snail mail on DVDs for family members and friends who were not using social networking sites. For 30 days the students implemented their campaigns and collected their donations.

Outcomes in Student Learning

At the shelter health fair students learned first-hand the plethora of problems experienced by men, women and children who are without shelter. Many health topics discussed in the classroom such as drug/alcohol abuse, mental illness, hunger, dehydration, foot problems, and fatigue were evident at our fair.

Over 100 homeless adults participated in the fair. Most visited all the booths and voluntarily participated in the screenings, activities, and knowledge games. The Personal Health students who were fearful prior to the event built confidence as they performed their duties and developed compassion as they interacted with the participants.

During the food drive the Community Health students received a real life lesson in community attitudes toward homelessness, the extent of the problem in our community, and the effort it takes to provide enough food for our homeless population to survive. This experience would have been impossible to teach within the boundaries of a classroom. These quotes taken from students’ reflection papers on this project demonstrates the lessons learned. ”I got a sense of appreciation for how much work is involved in organizing an efficient way to reach out and help those in need.” Another student wrote:

“My thoughts on the homeless have definitely changed throughout the course of this semester and through the duration of this project. I always harbored that mentality that people that ended up homeless did it to themselves. While I did have sympathy for people that were less fortunate, I think it was an overall sense of being naïve that supported that mentality. Now however, I view it differently. I understand now that there is another side and sometimes, things just don’t go smoothly for everyone.”

And one other student wrote “My participation in the Jesus Center Canned Food Drive helped make me a better advocate and a better citizen of the community.”

The social marketing campaign brought in 2,384 pairs of new socks and $640.00 in cash donations. In addition, $977.00 in children’s clothing and blankets was donated by local merchants who had student employees. These resources were delivered by small groups of students to five local agencies serving the homeless. Each recipient got five pairs of new socks. At each agency the students were greeted with true appreciation. The most common response from the students was surprise at how grateful the people were to receive socks. Even though the students had researched the need for socks and dedicated many hours to get socks donated, they had secretly wished they were working to get food or something else significant. It wasn’t until they came face to face with those in need that they saw the value of their work and started to see the real challenges of homelessness. As each group returned from the agencies they expressed the desire to do more for the homeless, and a shared a new realization of their own wealth. One student wrote, “I take socks completely for granted.

They come out of the dryer without the matching sock and I just throw them out and get new ones.” Another student wrote, “I can’t imagine anyone I know being that excited about socks. It makes me sad that we don’t appreciate all that we have.”

As our students take jobs working in low income communities and for non-profit organizations they will need fundraising skills. This project was an excellent way to test out messages intended to get people to take positive action for social good. Helping the homelessness is a tough sell and yet these students were able to get a largely upper middle class population to take action. These skills will come in handy regardless of their future target population or health focus.

In terms of social marketing techniques the students discovered that: (1) a face-to-face approach, phone call or a handwritten note to adults over 60 was most effective; (2) face-to face, phone call, or Email was most effective for the 45- 60 age group; (3) Email, text message, Facebook and YouTube were effective for the 25-45 age group; and (4) regardless of method, they got very little from their own age group except verbal commentary on their movies and messages. The students had only used these technologies for social purposes and were hesitant to put their messages and movies out for viewing. The public nature of this project caused the students to work hard at creating effective messages and professional movies, and the obvious measurement of success or failure based the number of socks collected resulted in an easy to evaluate project.

Advantages of Intradepartmental Collaboration

Service learning projects get stronger when they are repeated over multiple semesters. The first time a project is implemented there is the excitement of doing something for the first time. With each successive semester the project is enhanced and refined. In addition service learning experiences can benefit from being “traditions” – something this class or this department does every year. It only takes two years in college time to create a tradition and once a project is identified in that way the instructor has immediate buy-in and the desire of the students to surpass the efforts of those before them. When components of large projects are occurring in multiple classes, the students in those classes as well as the students in other non-participating classes are aware of the work going on. A higher level of importance is assigned to the projects because they are more visible and making a bigger difference in the community. The collaborative nature also benefits the faculty by providing a work group to discuss ideas, solve problems, and share the process and successes. Teaching in higher academia can be an isolating. Collaborating with others who have courses that can accommodate related service learning projects can enhance the curriculum of all the classes, contribute to collegiality, and add enjoyment to the workday.


This collaboration involved about 170 college students. The projects resulted in a health fair and screening at a homeless shelter; over 40,000 cans of food collected for the food bank; over 2,000 pairs of new socks distributed to clients at a food bank, three homeless shelters and a half-way house; and social marketing materials for area agencies to use when educating the general population about the homeless.

Through these projects the students learned planning, fundraising, organization, teaching, activism, surveying, data interpretation, social marketing, teamwork, and problem solving, as well as the satisfaction of doing for others and making a contribution to the community. The involvement of three classes at three different academic levels created a strong message to our majors that helping the homeless and being active in our community is part of our value system. The learning in each class was reinforced and the foundation for a comprehensive community service program for the homeless was started.

The instructors involved in this project intend to continue the use service learning projects to provide services for the homeless. As a result of the “book in common” topic of homelessness, our campus had many events during the academic year focusing on the population. During this time the authors established relationships with other instructors across campus who were interested in the homeless and/or service leaning projects. Consequently collaboration with other instructors outside the department has led to a coordinated effort across campus to help the homeless in our community.


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Brown, JD., Bone, L., Gillis, L., Treherne, L., Lindamood, K., Marsden, L. (2006).

Service learning to impact homelessness: The result of academic and community collaboration. Public Health Reports, 121(3): 343-348.

Feen-Calligan, H. (2008). Service-learning and art therapy in a homeless shelter.

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Hunt, R. (2007). Service-learning: an eye-opening experience that provokes emotion and challenges stereotypes. Journal of Nursing Education, 46(6), 277-281.

Lopez, S. (2008). The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. N.Y.: G.P. Putnam, 2008.

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About the Authors:

Holly Nevarez

Holly Clements Nevarez received her PhD in Public Health from Oregon State University. As an Assistant Professor at California State University, Chico her focus includes risky health behaviors, health administration and health disparities.

Assistant Professor, Department of Health and Community Services, California State University, Chico , Chico, CA 95929-0505.

Mary Portis

Mary Portis has a Doctor of Public Health degree from Loma Linda University. She is a professor and department chairperson in the Health and Community Services Department at California State University, Chico.

Linda McAfee Bilsborough

Linda McAfee Bilsborough has a MHS degree from the University of San Francisco and a credential from the University of California, Berkeley. She has been teaching in the Department of Health and Community Services since 1982. Her areas of expertise are personal health, service learning, school health and human sexuality.

© 2012 Journal for Civic Commitment

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.