Two students dedicate honors thesis to helping homeless

As the homeless youth population swells in the aftermath of the recession, so do the efforts of two USF students to reduce the challenges facing those in need.

Yesha Patel and Sandra Santos, both seniors majoring in biology, have jointly taken on an honors thesis to serve the homeless youth population by collecting and donating clothing to Outreaching Assisting Students in School (OASIS), a charity where clothes are sorted beforehand and people use tickets, given at the entrance, as payment. The non-profit organization operates out of Tampa Palms Elementary and Lazydays Center for Youth Development, which serves at-risk and homeless youth.

“We’ve been biology majors all of our college careers, we wanted to give back to the community,” Santos said. “We’re trying to spread awareness throughout the campus and let everyone know that homelessness is a really big issue right now everywhere.”

For Santos, the inspiration for the idea came from an honors seminar covering poverty. As a project, she and Patel decided to do a clothing and supply drive for kids going back to school. Though the scale of the project was small, the results resonated with her.

“When I saw people walking around wanting to donate, I was like, ‘Wow, I can actually make a difference,'” Santos said. “I know what it’s like to have to go through that. I wasn’t homeless, but my parents did everything to supply me and my brothers with clothing and all the essential stuff.”

Patel and Santos decided that a clothing drive was most effective in serving homeless youth because of the social and cultural importance associated with personal fashion.

“Clothing, especially for younger children and teenagers, is such an important social factor growing up,” Patel said. “There are so many stereotypes associated with homelessness. Simple things like outdated clothing can make such a difference on a child’s self-esteem.”

Santos, who said her definition of homelessness has greatly expanded since the onset of the project, said the social stigma attached to inadequate clothing is often enough to prevent one from seeking employment.

“When you’re our age, you’re looking for jobs and you’re trying to get out there and trying to get out of the situation you unfortunately ended up in,” she said. “It kind of gives them a way to deal with it. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you have to wear clothing that’s worn out.”

Their intensive two-week campaign, with a goal of raising 5,000 articles of clothing, kicked off Monday with an event called “Dress-A-Bull” in the Marshall Student Center (MSC) Amphitheater.

Speakers at the event included USF Student Government President Cesar Hernandez, Miss USF 2010 Lisa Noury, the Lazydays Center’s program manager Kathy Wiggins and speakers from the Homelessness Coalition of Hillsborough County. Other guests included Ginger Bean and Brenda Simpson from OASIS, which Patel and Santos began volunteering with this summer.

Donation boxes will be stationed on campus until Nov. 19 at the MSC, the Library and the Andros and Argos residence halls. The event’s turnout exceeded Patel and Santos’ expectations, and they said they were greatly encouraged by the donations. One box was filled at the event, which came one week before the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement’s (CLCE) annual Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

Santos said the CLCE helped organize the large-scale event, and after the drive comes to an end, there will be a homelessness sleep-out awareness event that she and Patel plan to attend.

“We really are very passionate and excited about this project,” Patel said. “We want people in the community to open their hearts and closets to those in need.”