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A camp were the homeless live in Myrtle Beach, from the Souls Without Solace" Facebook page

Swain Scholars aim to change public opinion on homelessness

by Rebecca Cwalina
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Coastal Carolina University’s Swain Scholars are tackling the issue of homelessness in Horry County.

The 2015 Swain Scholars Emma Kroger, Nancy Phillips and Kerry Dittmeier are investigating the perceptions people have of homelessness. They have developed a survey, engaged agencies that deal with the homeless, and gone out into the field to meet and listen to homeless people tell their stories. The goal of the project is to bridge the gap between the perceptions and the reality of the homelessness phenomenon.

“These Swain Scholars bring passion and enthusiasm to their efforts to raise awareness about homelessness in Horry County,” said Sharon Thompson, the Swain Scholar program coordinator and a professor of public health at CCU. “Their interviews with people who are homeless in our county and the sharing of these stories will help others better understand the circumstances that often lead to homelessness. Their community outreach efforts have the potential to challenge long-held beliefs and attitudes.”

The idea for their project began when they learned that Horry County’s homeless population is ranked second-largest in the state and first for the highest population of unsheltered homeless individuals.

“It was shocking and heartbreaking,” said Kroger, a junior exercise and sports science major. “It was like we all knew at once that this was the project we’d take on.”

One part of the project is an outreach program called “Souls without Solace,” in which the students collect stories from homeless individuals. Steven Stevens, outreach coordinator for the Veterans Association; Dana Black, owner of North Strand Housing; and the Eastern Carolina Homelessness Organization (ECHO) have been helping the Swain Scholars gather the stories. The scholars believe these relationships are important, as these people and organizations are trusted by the homeless individuals they help. The scholars have been making trips to homeless shelters and to areas highly populated with homeless people to collect their stories.

“According to the interviews I have conducted so far, every reason a particular person was homeless was a product of an event, the environment or both,” said Phillips, a junior biochemistry major. “One thing that speaks loudly about these individuals is that no one has asked me for anything. I have been interacting with these people for more than a year, and I always leave an interview with more than I brought to it. Each person has a story, hobbies, goals, dreams and hope.”

The stories of two 19-year-olds made a particular impact on the scholars. One, homeless for two months, fears for his safety at night and avoids sleeping alone. Another grasps for hope that one day she will get off of the streets. She tries to keep looking forward, but she admits she gets depressed and often wants to try the drugs and alcohol that people try to give her.

The students have been documenting each story so they can share “Souls Without Solace” (https://www.facebook.com/Souls-without-Solace-169503370088531/?fref=ts) with the public. CCU’s Athenaeum Press will collaborate with the students to turn their project into a more visual experience using print and digital media.

The survey they have developed aims to understand trends and patterns in public perceptions about homelessness. Some of the questions include what gender and age comes to mind when respondents think of a homeless person, how they believe someone becomes homeless, and whether or not they talk to homeless people. The students will continue offering the survey until mid-April. The data will then be compared with the stories they have collected to show the difference between the public’s perceptions of homelessness and its reality.

Though the Swain Scholars Program was created to improve the health of the community, the scholars agree that it has helped them become better students as well.

“Particularly as a public health major, I find that the Swain Scholar Program really fosters an environment in which everything I am learning in the classroom can come to life,” Dittmeier, a junior public health major, said. “This program is so important because it provides students with the opportunity to grow both personally and professionally through an incredibly hands-on experience. The experiences we have had and will continue to have as we delve into all of the opportunities that will arise with this project are going to be an irreplaceable part of our academic growth and futures in a helping profession.”

To support their efforts, take their online survey at http://snap.coastal.edu/snapwebhost/s.asp?k=144735495926.

To become Swain Scholars,the junior-level students from the College of Science are selected through a competitive process. The unique scholarship program, established through a major gift from retired pharmacist Kenneth E. Swain of Myrtle Beach. Scholarship, conducts student-driven community health outreach and research projects designed to improve the health of Horry County residents.

For more information on the program, contact Thompson at 843-349-2635, thompson@coastal.edu.

 

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