Teaching About Homelessness & Human Needs - Interview with Heather Walters

Teaching About Homelessness & Human Needs
Heather Walters

As a social sciences and humanities teacher I teach in a variety of different areas including the traditional family studies classes like food and nutrition, parenting and fashion as well as philosophy, world religions, and general social sciences. The issue of homelessness is something that can be effortlessly woven into all of those courses because they’re all about human need.

Tell us about your experience(s) using homelessness as a topic in your teaching.

Homelessness at its core is about not meeting a fundamental human need. It touches on all students lives, whether they know somebody who is homeless, they have seen somebody who is homeless, they want to understand homelessness,  they have reactions, judgements, they have all kinds of things they want to say about homelessness, and it can lead to a deeper understanding and connection in  the classroom.

How did you become interested in this topic?

I became interested in the issue of homelessness, as a social justice issue, and engaging with social justice issues was the reason that I went into education in the first place. I engaged with [this topic] from the beginning of my teaching career.

What was the response of your students?

They responded sometimes with curiosity, sometimes with judgement, and sometimes with empathy. Once we talk about it, once they see that the line between us and them is really very close, they start to have a much deeper understanding of homelessness as a human issue. It’s not about “othering”, it’s not about [homeless people] being something different, it’s about needs not being met. They could be in that situation, or someone they love could be homeless because of circumstances that are completely beyond their control.

So it’s something that students respond very well to, and they react against strongly to in the beginning.

Can you tell us about the curriculum unit that you developed?

I developed a couple of units, one was for a Food and Nutrition course, and in that we were looking at the nutrition needs that are typically not met when somebody can’t cook for themselves at home.

So, I mean its one thing to say, “well, people can get food at a food bank.” But, what’s missing? What are they getting too much of if they are only eating canned food, for instance.

So we looked at what people need when they are feeding themselves in inadequate facilities. That was in the Food and Nutrition unit. There was a social action component to that [unit] as well, where [the students] were planning how to meet the needs of homeless people, for instance in a soup kitchen, at a food bank, and how to adequately feed people and give them what they need, including culturally respectful food, low salt food. These are all of the things that are often a challenge to get when you are feeding yourself in inadequate conditions.

In the Individuals and Families, a Diverse Society course, we developed a unit looking at some of the struggles that are faced by families that can sometimes lead to homelessness and  that can sometimes make it a challenge for a family to deal with someone that they love who is homeless.

What are you most proud of in your unit?

I like the social action component. I think its one thing to understand and be aware of, but it’s a very different form of living and once students get involved, and do something to make a difference, that is something that I think all of us should be working towards, to do those hands on, social action kind of learning projects.

How  did you make decisions about what content to put in your unit?

 That was a struggle because all of social sciences and humanities is about human need.

We could look at that through a philosophy lens, looking at the ethics around issues of homelessness, we could also look at it in a parenting course. So it really was a struggle to figure out which course to connect it with because homelessness can connect with so much. I chose courses that are popular, that a lot of students take, so that the message could reach as many people as possible. That was how I connected with the particular course, and then the content that I connected with, it was an easy decision to just look up, if it’s a Food and Nutrition course, look at what the nutrition issues are that homeless people face and  how can we deal with that.

 In the Individual and Families course, its about family development and challenges that families face, so we treated homelessness as a family challenge.

How important is it for a teacher to be prepared about issues relating to homelessness?

I think it’s really important to do your thinking ahead of time, and to know your students ahead of time, and to approach the issue of homelessness as a sensitive topic, because it can cut very close to the student’s lives. Often Boards will have developed resources for dealing with controversial and sensitive issues in their classes, and I think this is a sensitive issue. Teachers should know how to manage those kinds of issues as they come up in the classroom. If somebody makes a comment, they should be prepared to effectively and respectively engage with students anddeal with the content of what they said, as a way of making a safe environment for all of their students.   

See Heather's curriculum unit, Integrating Homelessness Issues into Family/Social Sciences Classes.

Publication Date: 
Toronto, ON, Canada