Santa Barbara’s Casa Esperanza homeless shelter will soon offer more than just a place to stay.
Beginning Feb. 15, volunteer teachers will teach free adult classes in subjects including song writing, poetry, photography, yoga, politics and current events, and women’s transformational dance. The schedule of classes was organized by the Social Justice Committee (SJC), an advocacy group for the homeless in Santa Barbara. The McCune Foundation and the Fund for Santa Barbara provided funding for the program.
In order to design a viable program, Michele Wakin, a graduate student in sociology at UCSB, proposed a series of focus groups made up of homeless people to assess the needs of the Casa Esperanza patrons. The groups stressed the importance of job skills, English language skills and an opportunity for the students to earn a general education development (GED) degree.
“These artistically based classes are a great first step,” Wakin said. “We’re going to give the people what they need and what they want, so that they’re in control of what they get.”
Peter Marin, executive director of SJC, said the classes are an opportunity for the homeless to enjoy the privileges other people take for granted.
“We’re doing this for the same reason that City College puts out adult classes,” Marin said. “These are the same people that take those classes, but colleges don’t reach out to the homeless. We’re just doing the stuff that people ought to do but don’t.”
Casa Esperanza’s executive director Hal Onserud said he hopes the “cultural” nature of the initial classes will help the patrons integrate themselves into society.
“For a while I’ve had a vision of making this place into a real community center, so when Peter Marin brought this project to me, it coincided with what I had already wanted to do,” Onserud said. “We’re also starting a monthly concert and lecture series on Sunday afternoons to help integrate the shelter into the community. When people get to know each other, it breaks down barriers, and by bringing people in here it helps eliminate negative stereotypes about the homeless.”
The shelter has around 10 volunteer educators to teach daily classes at the shelter, including Richard Falk, a global studies professor at UCSB. Santa Barbara resident Vincent Stanley will teach a poetry class.
“I’ve never known anybody who taught poetry to homeless people,” Stanley said. “Poetry specializes in a marginalized language that marginalized people can engage in. The people that sign up for these classes were at some point interested in poetry, but probably haven’t thought about it for awhile. The main benefit is reconnecting people.”
Residents of the shelter can sign up for classes Feb. 4.
“My husband writes stories, so he’ll be interested in the song writing and poetry classes,” Karen Archer, a patron of the shelter, said. “I don’t know about the yoga, though. Half of the people here don’t do anything; they sleep mainly. They need to be more active.”