'It is so nice to have your own' Course Pairs Students with Homeless People in Transition

Through photography and audio recordings, Duke students in a service learning course this semester got to know 11 Durham residents and gained a personal understanding of the complex causes of homelessness.

Man sitting on porch“Before spending time at the Phoenix House,” junior public policy major John Refling says, “I was able to largely ignore the anonymous faces on the street. This class illustrated that every single person on the street has a story, and it’s probably more complicated than I initially believed.”

Refling was one of 10 undergraduates in “Documentary Engagement,” a service-learning course offered by the Sanford School of Public Policy’s Hart Leadership Program and the Duke Center for Documentary Studies.

Junior Daniella Choi tells the story of Toni, who lives in Dove House, a transitional home for single women. “As the residents related their stories to me, I became personally invested in this dire issue of homelessness…,” Choi says. “As one former resident said, homelessness ‘can happen to anyone. … It’s not a matter of moral deficiency.’”

In addition to classroom work, the students visited each week with people associated with Housing for New Hope, an organization that for nearly 20 years has helped the homeless in Durham and Orange counties. The Durham-based nonprofit provides care for the most needy through outreach and crisis assistance, transitional housing and permanent housing.

Students spent more than 20 hours during the semester at a Housing for New Hope site, where they built relationships and captured individual stories through photographs and audio recordings. Their six-to-eight-minute audio slideshows are posted online at Coming Home, along with student reflections on their experiences.

The course provided Housing for New Hope with materials to tell its story and raise more than $10,000 in its recent fundraiser, said Liisa Sinikka Ogburn, director of the Lewis Hine Documentary Fellows Program. She co-taught the course with Alex Harris, professor of documentary studies and public policy.

This week, the students unveiled their documentaries in a meeting room at the Williams Square Apartments in Durham, one of five housing facilities operated by Housing for New Hope.

In the documentaries, men and women talk about their life on the streets and some of the struggles they faced: poverty, drugs, abuse, being ripped off, hopelessness.

In sophomore Ashley Tsai’s piece, Gloria Ann Burch talks of the difficulty she faced after ending up on the streets of Durham as a pregnant 19-year-old.

“Even though I was working I wasn’t making enough, so for a time I had to get food from the churches and I had to bring it back on the bus,” Burch says. “For me that was embarrassing because I never thought I would see myself doing anything like this.

“My dream was to go to college and have a nice brick house, a husband, kids and being outside painting the environment and just loving life, but it didn’t happen that way.

Burch conveys the significance of Housing for New Hope’s assistance when she talks about how nice it is to be able to cook and play her music when she wants.

“It’s so nice to have your own,” she says.