Animas High School juniors plan to bring homeless residents and the larger community together over dinner to help bridge a rift in town.
“Our goal that we created as a class for this project is to change people’s perceptions and awareness of homelessness to promote more compassion and understanding,” said Ava Stills, 16.
The event is the culmination of a semester of study in their Morality and Politics of Justice class, a required course, Stills and fellow student Sarah von Tersch said.
It will feature student art and films around homelessness and speakers including La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff, a host from the camp north of the Tech Center and a representative from La Plata Youth Services, who will talk about the need for more services for homeless youths. The class also invited nonprofits that serve the homeless community.
In the past, Animas High students have picked their own political issues to explore more fully as part of the curriculum that explores how a democratic government should balance security, liberty and equality, said teacher Ashley Carruth.
The students wrote opinion pieces and held coffeehouse conversations to discuss the social justice issues with members of the public.
But this year, the class wanted to do something more collaborative.
“They wanted to pick an issue that’s affecting Durango and try to solve it or address it some way,” she said.
The class looked at environmental issues, suicide and other issues before identifying homelessness as their focus.
To understand the local issue, the students visited the camp north of the Tech Center with La Plata County Sheriff’s Lt. Ed Aber and speakers from local organizations that serve the homeless. They also heard from residents on Ella Vita Court near Manna, who have had some negative experiences, Carruth said.
As part of exploring the social justice aspect of homelessness, the students read a research study by the University of Denver law school on how much money the state spends enforcing laws that are anti-homeless, such as ordinances against sleeping in public.
“You have these polices and laws and structures that even if somebody is trying their hardest can’t avoid breaking or violating,” Carruth said.
Student Henry Haggart and his team are building a test to help demonstrate to visitors the implicit bias that could exist when enforcing a law against sleeping on public benches.
People who take the test will be presented with photos of people in ragged clothing, with signs and cups and people in suits and will be asked whether the person should be removed from the bench or not, he said.
Using the time it takes a person to decide on the photo, Haggart plans to analyze their implicit bias or an unconscious attitude or stereotype.
“It’s something that given time you can control, but doing this test we’re just showing people that, that bias exists,” he said.
Students are also collecting warm winter clothing, feminine hygiene products and food for homeless residents. The collection drives started at school and attendees are also encouraged to donate.
The students are planning for about 175 people and have invited residents of the homeless camp to their homeless awareness event, “With Justice for All.”