Some of us will be lucky enough to never know what it feels like to be without a home, but eight LaGuardia Community College theater students set out to temporarily experience the day-to-day lives of homeless people in New York City.
LCC assistant theater professor Stefanie Sertich partnered with fellow assistant theater professor Ryan McKinney of Brooklyn Community College to create a program that would require a group of young adults to gather information and experience from months of community service at homeless shelters and experiencing life on the street as well.
They used the time to become inspired and create a production that was laced together in a single show called “Unpacking Homelessness,” which was presented last Thursday.
The idea came about when Sertich and McKinney had an experience with the nonprofit Artists Striving to End Poverty, which aims to transform the lives of youth through art.
“The kind of work they were doing was and still is really great,” Sertich said. “So we went through this orientation process where we learned ASTEP’s model, which led to the creation of this big, monstrous project.”
There was a student interview process and Sertich and McKinney emphasized that they would be expected to volunteer at a shelter for six weeks, and absences or excessive lateness would not be tolerated. In the end, 16 students were chosen from both schools to participate in the program.
The most emotional part was when the students were asked to spend 20 minutes on the street amid cardboard boxes. They could panhandle if they wanted to but the point was to feel what the hundreds of homeless people living on the street experience every day. After their time outside, they were brought into a mock shelter where they were asked to check in, sleep in sleeping bags and on cots.
“We were looking for an empathetic way in, not a sympathetic way in, which is important,” Sertich said. “It’s funny, this is probably the first time working with students where the back talking didn’t happen. The work was that important to them.”
In fact, as the students spent more and more time together, it was revealed that several of them had lived in a shelter at least once in their lives.
The performance, which has been chosen to be staged at the American Collegiate Theater Festival later this year, uses a simple backdrop of cloth covered in graffiti as its set. Everything else comes from the students.
“When the audience comes in, they don’t know it but we put them through a shelter intake process where they fill out forms and answer questions that anyone applying to live in a shelter would have to answer,” Sertich said. “We wanted them to experience what it’s like.”
Then students perform vignettes of scenes and stories based on their experiences volunteering or characters they created.
“The stories are fictional and we don’t have the answers to solving homelessness,” Sertich said. “We’re just shining a light on the invisible. It’s more about how we look at homelessness instead of solving anything or passing judgment.
“Maybe as a community we can look at them a little differently because we discovered that homelessness is a symptom of so many problems, but when you go down to the root of the problem, there is always a disconnect of love and community.”