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Students write letters to understand homelessness

When the topic is homelessness, Curt McDermott doesn’t really care about the opinions of his students. What he cares about is that they have opinions at all, and that they get into the habit of sharing them.

“It’s really my goal to get them to cultivate their own opinions,” said McDermott, who teaches an Advanced Placement language and composition class at Goffstown High School. “It’s one thing to have a classroom discussion about it, but it’s another thing to create a product that they have to share with the rest of the world.”

That product came in the form of letters to the editor that each of McDermott’s students had to write and send to the New Hampshire Union Leader. The result of the class project was 18 letters to the editor, all signed and all espousing an opinion about homelessness.

In one case, a student took to satire along the lines of “A Modest Proposal,” the 1729 essay written by “Gulliver’s Travels” author Jonathan Swift, in which he suggests that Ireland’s poor could escape poverty by selling their children to the rich as food.

“The first step is to gather the homeless in large quantities, whether it is at a fake soup kitchen or somewhere that they can find shelter. Once they have swarmed together, we simply bring them into the basement or back of these places and clean them up,” wrote Rachel Breckinridge. “Once cleaned, they will be put into simple, easy to produce clothing, where they will be tagged with a price sticker.” Once tagged, “we ship them off to local pet stores.”

Just in case a reader failed to recognize the satirical tone of her proposal, Breckenridge attached a hand-written note to her letter. “Please note this essay is 100 percent satirical and should not be taken seriously or personally,” Breckenridge explained.

According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, there were 2,576 homeless people living in the state as of Jan. 23 – an increase of 6 percent over last year. Statewide, 1,243 were living in shelters, 442 unsheltered and 891 were temporarily living with family members or friends. In Hillsborough County, 312 individuals were living in shelters, 139 unsheltered and 213 living temporarily with friends or family.

“I was unsure at first about a lot of the facts of homelessness,” said Henry Seidel, a junior and a student in McDermott’s class. “The numbers themselves were kind of surprising.”

What surprised Seidel most was that a larger-than-expected percentage of homeless are veterans.

“That kind of surprised me because I thought we had taken care of our veterans,” he said.

For some students in McDermott’s class, the results of their research found their way into their letters, while others took a more direct approach to the topic, relying more on their observations.

Laura King made her observations while on a family vacation in the Bahamas recently.

“I thought I would go with an emotional appeal in my letter,” she said. “I wanted it to get to a larger audience.” In her letter, King wrote, “As my first time leaving the States, it was quite a culture shock. Once we ventured out of the tourist trap of Nassau, it seemed that what we would consider to be lower-class housing filled the island. Their National Art Museum was nothing but a repurposed house. People sold their artwork out of stalls, or offered tours of their island for income.”

King’s experience with Third World living conditions gave her a fresh perspective on her own circumstances.

“I realized just how lucky I was,” she said.

Hadley White, 17, a student of McDermott’s from Goffs-town, had a similar experience to King’s, except hers was closer to home. On a trip to Newport, R.I., a seaside city considered a playground for the rich, also has a large homeless population.

“It’s interesting that you go down the side streets and see people begging,” White said. “The contrast, it impacts you – it’s weird.”

For White, the problem is a multifaceted one.

“It’s no sense trying to solve homelessness by taking it out all as one, under some umbrella program that focuses on the big picture,” she wrote. “Rather, we should attack the smaller facets. Homelessness is much more manageable when one zooms in on, say, the homeless who suffer from mental disease. Yet if this group is treated just like those who are homeless due to gambling addiction or drug dependency, the true potential of any help offered is lost amongst a jumble of good intentions …”

As a teacher, McDermott found satisfaction in the effort his students put in to the project. “I told them when we started that you guys are putting your names on this, so it’s up to you to start developing your own thoughts, and to think critically about the issue,” he said.

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