UW News

May 22, 2008

Homeless youth are class focus

Class title: “Critical Studies of Homeless Youth Issues,” General studies/Nursing. Team-taught by Josephine Ensign, associate professor of psychosocial and community health; Rachel Vaughn, associate director of the Carlson Leadership & Public Service Center; and Laura Pritchard, director of the University District Service Providers Alliance.

Description: This course allows an avenue for exploration of the issues of homelessness in young people from a critical and interdisciplinary perspective. The course is grounded in a service-learning format; students will work in one of the many homeless youth-serving organizations in the University District as an integral class requirement. The course is co-taught by community and University members. A wide variety of community organizations act as as partners in this course, including shelters, meal programs, health care agencies and drop-in centers.

In the class students are challenged to identify and wrestle with their own biases toward homelessness, as well as critically analyze society’s views on homelessness and adolescence. The class analyzes local, state, country and international public and professional writings as well as media coverage of homelessness in young people. The course emphasizes civic engagement and social justice issues.

Instructor’s views: Ensign wrote, “With support from the UW School of Nursing and the Carlson Center, we’ve been able to offer this unique course every Spring Quarter since 2004. Hands down, it has been the most rewarding course I have ever taught. I love helping facilitate the course and then working alongside many of my students as we offer health care for homeless youth at the 45th Street Youth Clinic.”

Unexpected experiences: “Somewhat surprising to me has been the number of UW students who have a sibling or other close family member experiencing homelessness, as well as the not-infrequent occurrence of having my homeless youth clinic patients be my current UW students,” Ensign wrote.

Student views: Former student Mallory Betz wrote, “Critical Perspectives on Homeless Youth was an extremely valuable class that opened my eyes and challenged my previous assumptions about the homeless youth population in our community. They are a misunderstood group and I’m glad that I have been able to gain a more genuine understanding of homeless youth through my service learning position at 45th Street Homeless Youth Clinic. My volunteer position there eventually led to a job and I am still at the clinic over a year later! The class helped me discover a population that I am passionate about working with.”

Student Shawn Goicoechea wrote, “I was drawn to the class because I’ve been volunteering at ROOTS (a University District shelter, short for Rising Out Of the The Shadows) for a while and I thought that it would be great to take a class that discussed the situation of youth homelessness more deeply. More particularly I’m interested in social problems, and inequalities, and imagining ways in which we can fix the systemic problems that cause them. Taking a deeper look at something like homelessness can expose some of the ways it is caused and, hopefully, knowing causes will help us formulate solutions.”


The Color of Homelessness, Report to the Committee to End Homelessness in King County by Sean Power, 2006.

Working with Homeless LGBTQ Youth, Child Welfare League of America, 2005.

Principles of Harm Reduction, The Harm reduction Coalition.

Embracing Street Culture: Fitting Health Care Into the Lives of Street Youth, Barry, P, Ensign J, and Lippek, S. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 13(2): 145-152. 2002.

Homeless Young Adults Ages 18-24: Examining Service Delivery Adaptations, National Health Care for the Homeless Council. 2004.

A Dream Denied: The Ciminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, NCH Fact Sheet. National Coalition for the Homeless.

“Attacks on the homeless on the rise with youths mostly to blame,” Amy Green, The New York Times, 2-15-08.

Voices of the Streets, Consortium for Street Children. London, England. 2005.

Assignments: This is a credit/noncredit class. To get credit, students must participate in class discussions and attend a class on homelessness presented by the University District Service Provider’s Alliance and fulfill a service learning requirement.

The instructors created seven objectives they have for students who complete the course. These are:

  • Value an understanding of differing perspectives on the “problem” of homelessness in young people in the U.S.
  • Analyze the major social, cultural, legal and political factors contributing to homelessness in young people in the U.S.
  • Critically discuss the structural and ideological underpinnings of homelessness in young people.
  • Critique current media and academic writings and coverage of youth homelessness.
  • Integrate the learning acquired through the service experiences with the class activities.
  • Clearly articulate one’s own view of the causes and consequences of homelessness in young people.
  • Explore personal and societal responsibilities related to homelessness in young people.

To show what they have learned, the students are required to:

  • Write weekly reflective journal entries responding to questions distributed in class,
  • Participate in “small-group service-learning reflective activities.” These are groups that “analyze their service-learning experiences through the lens of course readings and presentations.”

Class Notes is a periodic column about especially interesting or offbeat classes at the UW. This Class Notes compiled by Peter Kelley, with assistance from Josephine Ensign.