Doing Good

Opening Eyes at ECHO Shelter

A distinctive hands-on learning experience gives students in one political science class an up-close look at homelessness — and an opportunity to serve.

An illustration of a person in a green sweater helping another in a yellow shirt up an obstacleFor students in professor Jean Williams’ upper-division political science class, The Politics of Poverty, a key Learn by Doing opportunity gives students a firsthand glimpse into where policy meets reality — and the results are often life-changing.

Every spring, students in the course volunteer for an overnight shift at ECHO, a homeless shelter in Atascadero.

“I’ve always taught it as a service learning course,” said Williams, a political science professor on a yearlong faculty fellowship aimed at infusing service learning into more courses across the university. “It works really well because it enables students to think about their service as another text.”

The class is divided into three sections: two are primarily focused on poverty and welfare policy and the third section is on homelessness policy. Every student must complete a service project, which is focused on homelessness.

“I think one of the things that is most educational is to come face-to-face with people who don’t fit the stereotype of homelessness that many of us carry,” Williams said. “To go to ECHO and to see that pretty much everyone there is someone they could pass on the street and never assume to be homeless is one of the most compelling parts of the class.”

Gracie Babatola, a recent political science graduate, signed up for Williams’ course last year when she was looking for a Learn by Doing opportunity in her department. The course was not only eye-opening — it led her to change jobs after graduation.

Seeing how their lives and families are so similar to mine drove home that we’re just one step removed.

At ECHO, Babatola said she not only interacted with people experiencing homelessness, but also saw the inner workings of a shelter. She remembered staff calling 911 for one client having a medical emergency, and the resulting lack of urgency once the dispatcher heard the location of the call. She said that client decided not to go to the hospital for fear of sky-high medical expenses. That night, Babatola slept in shifts with another volunteer so they could take the client, who was in a wheelchair, to the bathroom. Another client she spoke to told her about the logistics of trying to plan a birthday party for her daughter while needing to be back at the shelter by a certain time and finding a location that wouldn’t give away her housing situation to her daughter’s friends.

“The statistics about homelessness, the statistics of how people end up in homelessness have always been something that I’ve known,” Babatola said. “But seeing the individual people and seeing how their lives and families are so similar to mine drove home that we’re just one step removed.”

After graduation, Babatola started as a legal assistant at a San Francisco law firm, but it felt like something was missing.

“Every day when I would take my lunch break, I’d constantly be thinking about, ‘What do I want to do?’ and a constant thread was thinking about the politics of poverty class and the skills I learned,” Babatola said. “When I saw a position open up at a nonprofit providing mental health services to children and their families who are experiencing or have recently experienced homelessness, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity.”

Babatola now works at that nonprofit, Homeless Children’s Network, as a program assistant helping with client intake and communication. She’s studying for the LSAT and hopes to bring her perspectives into law school and beyond.

“What stands out most about the class is that focus on service learning, because you can spend as much time as you want reading about it but the reality of a situation is vastly different from a book,” said fourth-year political science student Jordan Schleifer, who also took the class last year. Schleifer said that his experience at ECHO drove home the importance of discussing policy with the people who actually live with its effects, rather than thinking about it as a theoretical exercise.

“Getting some real-world experience with the issues and topics we talk about in class is so vital because you really don’t know anything,” said Schleifer. “You don’t know what it’s like unless you’ve been there and you’ve seen it.”