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Originally published March 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 26, 2009 at 2:17 PM

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Seattle Pacific students spend 5 days on streets to feel pain of homeless

Eighteen Seattle Pacific University students spent their spring break living as if they were homeless, as part of the private, Christian college's experiential "urban plunge" program.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

Google the words "spring break" and up pop images of bikinis, beaches, more bikinis, and margaritas.

That couldn't be further from the experience this week of 18 Seattle Pacific University students. They chose to spend their spring break on the streets of Seattle living as if they were homeless, as part of the school's experiential "urban plunge" program.

For these students, spring break was all about long johns and layers, Dumpster diving and wandering.

Sophomore Sarah Long said she spoke to dozens of homeless people over the five days and was struck that every single one had plans to find housing and jobs.

"It's heartbreaking," she said. "They are not willing to resign themselves to staying on the streets, but they are also not taking the actions they need to get off the streets. ... It's hard to know how to solve it, it's just so complex."

Urban plunge has been running more than 20 years and is one of several ways in which faculty and students at the small, private Christian college attempt to confront issues like materialism and public service.

Other students have formed a club in which they try to live in an ascetic manner — wearing no shoes on certain days, even during December's snowstorms. One student gave up his apartment to live in a van.

Shelter in church

For urban plunge, Seattle Pacific reimburses a downtown church to provide a place for the students to sleep and also donates money to any soup kitchens the students eat at, so as not to deplete resources.

Some soup kitchens and drop-in centers, however, have requested the students stay away, in order to keep the focus on the genuinely homeless. Other service providers welcome them, saying they benefit from a steady stream of Seattle Pacific volunteers who want to help out long after they've finished the program.

Last Thursday, the 18 "plungers" met in the university's student union building for a final briefing before venturing out.

Most had just finished finals and looked like they'd already been living rough. Organizers had told them not to shower for a week beforehand and to dress way down.

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Leave stuff home

Students weren't allowed to bring food, cellphones or almost anything else. What they could take was a journal, a pen, a Bible, a toothbrush and the clothes on their back. Each was given three bus passes and $2.50 to last five days — enough to cover an emergency phone call if needed.

For safety, the students were divided into groups of three or four. They met as a group once or twice each day at various service providers, to learn more about helping homeless people. Other than that, they were on their own.

On the second day of homelessness, four students held signs asking for money outside a Tully's coffee shop in the University District. Most people walked past without making eye contact.

A couple of people paused to tell them there was a food bank nearby. One woman stopped to berate them — and to give them money.

"Why don't you work?" she demanded. "I'm going to give you this now, but your life would be so much better if you worked!"

She handed them her change before storming off. It added up to $1.33.

The students said any interaction was preferable to being ignored, the most common response they got on the street.

"When they recognize your existence, it's huge," said freshman Trevor Tangen. "When they wave, it's the best thing. You feel like you are alive."

Some students spent the money they collected from the public on food or bus fare. Others kept it for emergencies but then donated it to homeless people at the end of the five days.

The students operate under the guidelines that if anyone asks, they tell them who they are and what they are doing. The idea, they say, is not to fool people so much as get some sense of what it's like to be destitute.

Least fooled, in fact, were real homeless people — some of whom approached the students to ask for money themselves, or to make fun of them, or to offer advice and company.

Many took the time to tell the students where their lives had gone wrong or to explain how society had failed them. Some appreciated the students' efforts, while others remained skeptical.

Tangen's group said they quickly learned some tricks: You can keep track of time by looking at the digital displays on parking meters. Malls always have decent bathrooms. Take away MapQuest and you can find your way around the old-school way — by looking up addresses in a phone book.

In Belltown, junior Karin Bretz said she'd gone most of the day hungry and couldn't stop thinking about food until her group came across a bag of doughnuts in "great condition" in a Dumpster.

But when they sat down to eat them, a Seattle police bike officer told them to stand up and keep moving. The city has a "no-sitting" ordinance, he told them.

In fact, Seattle municipal code does stipulate that, in the downtown area, "No person shall sit or lie down upon a public sidewalk" between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. Still, the students found their treatment eye-opening.

Perhaps the hardest thing about street life, said senior Mike Zetterberg, is keeping yourself motivated and occupied once your normal schedule has been stripped away.

"There's nothing to do," he said. "Usually, even our recreation time is scheduled out."

Long said the thing she most missed after five days was her dignity.

"It's just not funny to be treated like a dirty blanket," she said. "I wanted to be treated with respect."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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