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Animas High students bring fresh eyes to homelessness issue in Durango

‘It opened my eyes. They’re not so different from us’

The final grade will be assigned by Ashley Carruth, who teaches humanities to a group of Animas High School juniors that chose to study issues surrounding homelessness.

But if Brandon Hayes, who has spent most of the time since 1996 homeless, had any say, they would be in the hunt for an A.

“I don’t think they are naive or optimistic,” said Hayes, who plans to spend the winter in “his cave” on Animas Mountain. “I think they’re taking a fresh look at the situation, and I think in their own way, they are trying to find solutions to the problem, and maybe they can come up with ideas that we just haven’t thought of yet.”

Dozens of student projects, from murals to science fair-like exhibits to videos, were on display and exhibit presenters were ready to answer questions evoked by their work. Several hundred people showed up to take a look.

In addition, several people dealing with homelessness in La Plata County gave speeches, and plenty of food was on hand to lend an air of celebration to the evening.

Charlie Stein, 16, had built a “Mindfulness Room” in which she had posted some of her favorite quotes from homeless individuals whom she had interviewed in the past three months.

“You need to have the patience to hear their whole story,” Stein said. She interviewed people and held discussions with the homeless while visiting camps and sharing meals with them at the Food Not Bombs dinners, which are held from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. each Sunday at Schneider Park.

Her favorite quote comes from Matt, a man whom she said considers himself “feral” and “not homeless.”

His quote: “Why am I seen as a problem just because I choose something alternative.”

Amanda Studdard, 17, and Caeley McClain, 16, created an interactive art piece that allowed people to write their own thoughts on homelessness.

“It opened my eyes. They’re not so different from us. They may have different experiences, and they’re facing different things. And they’re also facing challenges we don’t,” McClain said.

Harley Farkas, 17, another member of Carruth’s class, said they chose to study homelessness after hearing several presentations on various issues, from the environment to immigration.

“We wanted to choose a project that we thought could have an impact on our town,” he said.

One thing he learned in the course of dealing with the homeless issue is how well Durango is already addressing the problem and how different nonprofits, law enforcement and social service agencies are working together to help address the needs of the homeless, a problem he admits is more complex than he ever imagined three months ago.

La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff, who delivered the keynote address, appreciated the thoughtfulness of the displays.

“A number of the projects made you think; they made you think more seriously about how we should approach the situation, and I was impressed that it all came from students.

Carruth said the whole evening’s activities were student-directed, and the students wanted to conclude their studies by bringing together different groups of people – from the homeless to the groups dealing with the issue – with the intent that they would network, build bridges, share resources and perhaps begin to find new ways to address the needs of the homeless.

“Everything here, they handled it all – the logistics, the marketing, the student projects, the films. It’s all their ideas, and it’s inspiring to me. The students really stepped up.”

parmijo@durangoherald.com

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