Sociology Professor Geraldine Manning has made it her “mission” to imbue her students with a deeper understanding of the homeless.

This insidious social issue seems to grow worse each year, and seeing homeless people is often a life-changing experience for her students, says Manning, who for three decades has taught a class on homelessness and its causes.

Professor Geraldine Manning“Many students who come from the suburbs and now live on Tremont Street are seeing homelessness for the first time,” she says. “There may be homeless people [where they grew up] but they’re hidden almost.”

Manning’s course on homelessness grew from an event 30 years ago that directly affected her students. When a classmate failed to show up for an applied sociology seminar, Manning knew why this student was absent – she had grown despondent after two of her children were injured in an accident, was hospitalized, and was evicted from her apartment, her belongings tossed on the street by a landlord.

“At that point the students decided that they wanted to study homelessness for the semester,” she says. That first class, Manning recalls, was “very real because it was [spurred by] a student who should have been in our class.” She still marvels at the level of engagement among students in that inaugural course about homelessness.

Gaining understanding

“Some students wanted to go out and talk to somebody. Other students wanted to go and work in one of the shelters, some wanted to work in the soup kitchens,” Manning says. “Some students wanted to better inform the Suffolk community, so they started a campaign of collecting cans of food, which we turned over to the shelters. These students were very active.”

Now, Manning uses films to bring the students into the reality of homelessness. She has had homeless people as guest speakers and takes her students to one of Boston’s shelters to amplify the difficult choices faced by those who have lost their homes. Living in the city, students see people of all races, ages, and genders sleeping on old blankets or bits of cardboard or sitting on milk crates. Some have signs asking for money; others make a point of sharing a greeting with the familiar faces they see rushing to work or school every day.

For some of Manning’s students, seeing the homeless is a life-changing experience.

“There usually is a concern about why all these people are on the street,” she says. “In my Introduction to Sociology class, I spend a little time discussing why they’re on the streets.”

Compassion & action

Manning’s most recent class had 15 students. One subject she often addresses is misconceptions about the homeless.

“Way too many people think the homeless are scary, or they’re criminals. They think all sorts of things that aren’t true,” she says. “I also teach cultural diversity, and in that class I usually start with the homeless. Those people who are around us that we don’t understand, we’d better start learning about. I had a very wealthy student who was shocked when he heard that some people literally didn’t have a coat. He went home and took all his father’s coats [to give to the homeless], and his father told him he did the right thing.”

Manning’s goal with her students is simple and direct: to inform them about homelessness and teach them to act with compassion toward those who, through misfortune or illness, have wound up on the streets.

“I’m thinking the course can raise consciousness, and that these students will be better-informed citizens at the end of this,” she says. “The problem has just gotten worse, and, with what they learn, maybe they can do something positive.”