Social work students focus on youth homelessness

Social work students plan community outreach efforts Thursday night in Lommen. Adjunct social work professor Tim Erhardt’s class focuses on increasing awareness of homeless youth in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Social work students plan community outreach efforts Thursday night in Lommen. Adjunct social work professor Tim Erhardt’s class focuses on increasing awareness of homeless youth in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

“I think it is the way we work,” Tim Erhardt, adjunct social work professor said. “We finish school, and there’s pressure to achieve the job or keep up with the Joneses or whatever. I think we lose focus on being in relationships with people and what it really means to live in a community.”

Erhardt uses the community as his classroom, where his social work students experience working with organizations in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Three main projects encompass Erhardt’s course curriculum. All three involve choosing an underrepresented group in the community in order to help spread awareness and educate others about the group.

Erhardt thinks it’s important for all students to continue helping underrepresented groups in the community, even after they graduate and work in their chosen fields.

“As social workers we have a responsibility to not just work in the job that we have,” he said. “I see it more as an overall responsibility to be a worker for social justice, and if that doesn’t completely line up with what you’re doing, you still have a responsibility.”

Erhardt and his wife developed an international nonprofit called the Jua Project in Kitale, Kenya. The nonprofit creates jobs for single women by teaching them how to create jewelry out of recyclable materials.

The jewelry is sold in the U.S., which creates a weekly paycheck for the women to help them break the chains of extreme poverty. A group of students are working with the Jua Project.

“It’s been really nice to have people who are motivated and passionate and excited to do things,” Erhardt said. “I think students are representing the university really well.”

Erhardt assigned a punk rock band to each group of students to research the issue they advocated for. Joel Kromer, Jess Long, Cassie Webster and Jo-Wei Kao are senior social work majors who were assigned the Dead Kennedys, a band formed in San Francisco in 1978.

From this band, the group decided to advocate for the homeless youth in the F-M area.

“The community has really stigmatized homeless youth by thinking that they either have done something wrong to be on their own, that they should be with their family, that they are degenerates – it’s never a positive thing,” Long said. “The problem with that is the community won’t get involved raising funds for shelters or anything.”

On Thursday, this group of students will be at a table on the first floor of the Comstock Memorial Union, aiming to spread awareness about the homeless youth issue. They urge people to stop by and learn more about the issue and ways to get involved.

“It’s easily overlooked,” Kromer said. “When organizations talk about homelessness, you don’t even assume that there is children without housing.”

“I was surprised when I found out there was nothing for them,” Long said. “That’s sad.”

The group of students explained the community does not see a shelter for homeless youth as a big need in the community, because they want the nuclear family to be a norm.

However, the community should know the nuclear family is no longer the norm, and factors such as drug, physical or emotional abuse by family members or others can cause a child to run from home and, therefore, need shelter.

Kromer read from a study done by Wilder about homelessness in Fargo and Moorhead.

“From 2000 to 2012 the homeless children in Fargo increased from 46 to 98, and in Moorhead it’s increased from 18 to 53,” he said. “But the number of unaccompanied minors are much smaller. An unaccompanied minor under 18, there were six in Fargo and 13 in Moorhead.”

Even though the numbers are small, this still leaves an average of 19 children without a place to go.

The community can assume there are more homeless unaccompanied minors in the area who are unaccounted for; many who may be finding places to stay through Couchsurfing, Craigslist or the streets.

This group of students have positive reviews when discussing Erhardt’s class and the opportunities they’ve had so far to help the community.

“Tim’s class is really different than the other classes,” Kromer said. “This is like the first class where we’ve had to go into the community and just do projects. It’s a hands-on class. It’s a true practice class.”

“(Other) classes don’t prepare us for when we go out in the real world, and we have to deal with these things. We’re like, ‘woah, we just sat in a class and did some tests.’ ” Long said. “He wants you to actually go out there and make a difference.”

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