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Congresswoman Maxine Waters

Representing the 43rd District of California

USC News: Students Draft Homeless Children Bill

November 5, 2009
In The News

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) introduced legislation that USC School of Social Work students developed that mandates federal agencies reprioritize their funding to help keep homeless children housed with their parents whenever possible.

The resolution affirms that children should not be denied the right to be housed together with their families based on what neighborhood they live in or how much money they make.

"It's important that Congress acknowledge the fundamental right of children to adequate housing," Waters said. "Nearly 200,000 children and youth are homeless each night in America. It is appalling and unacceptable that so many children are living on the streets without shelter. The dangers of not having safe and adequate housing are especially harmful to children's health and development."

Led by professor Ralph Fertig, students from several social welfare policy classes researched statistics related to homelessness, conducted interviews, rallied stakeholders and made connections with key legislators to help draft and build support for the comprehensive bill. The work was part of their social advocacy project.

Fertig, clinical associate professor and head of the social welfare policy sequence for the USC School of Social Work, wrote the legislation, but said he could not have done it without the work of the students.

"The magnitude of their commitment exceeded my expectations," Fertig said.

Fertig has a long history of advocating for the homeless, which he believes represents a "failure of our social service safety net." He discussed the issue with his students, who decided to pursue it.

Instead of a simple class assignment, Fertig felt it would be a good opportunity for students to see firsthand how policy can affect vulnerable populations. Fertig, who has worked with Waters on anti-poverty issues for decades, reached out to his friend to see if she would be supportive of his students working on a bill.

Waters, who is also chair of the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, said she liked the concept and asked Fertig to bring her the research, rationale and language for the bill, and she committed to introducing it.

Excited by the challenge and realizing the enormity of the project, students immediately got to work on it. They split up into five teams - research, person in the environment, legislative, advocacy and communications - to make the work manageable.

While the research team found statistics and numbers to describe the extent of the issue, members of the person in the environment team interviewed homeless parents and their children to give a face and voice to the problem.

Group members also took video footage of the interviews that later was included in a documentary students made to record their efforts and progress. The students plan to share the documentary with agencies and individuals to build support for the bill.

The legislative team spent much of its time sending e-mails, making phone calls and writing letters to legislators to inform them of the bill and gather support. Instead of contacting politicians, the advocacy team made community connections by targeting social welfare agencies. The agencies were asked to call and write letters of support to their district and state legislative representatives.

Student Rosa Guerrero said it felt "surreal" to be a part of the project, and she never thought she would be able to contribute to such an important and progressive bill.

Guerrero, who had the job of finding and interviewing homeless families, said it was difficult hearing parents describe the day their children were taken away because of their inability to find housing.

"In doing the interviews, we discovered homeless women had difficult times recovering their children from foster care," Guerrero said. "They could not get their children back because they did not have housing, but many places would not give them housing until they had their children."

These types of stories emphasized the need for the legislation and motivated Guerrero and the other students to work even harder.

This was not a simple or typical class assignment, and students who participated had to be committed. Many of the students worked weekends and over last year's spring break to help get footage for the documentary, waking up at 5 a.m. and heading to downtown Los Angeles' skid row.

Erin Dowler was one of several students who went to a congressional hearing at Los Angeles Community College, where the homelessness issue was discussed. That is where they submitted their draft to Waters. Video footage of the hearing also is included in the documentary.

Dowler, who helped on the advocacy and communications teams, said being involved in this project has expanded her idea of social work and has given her insight and experience with the legislative process that she hopes to utilize again in her career.

"This experience was so powerful," she said. "To see something start from the beginning and watch it evolve into this huge federal bill that is going to be introduced. It's amazing to do it and to be a part of it all."

The experience also made Dowler more passionate about the well-being of society, and it has inspired her to become more involved.

"It's not just about my career," she said. "It's about working on behalf of the community to make it a better place to live."