Westminster cold weather shelter

A group of homeless people congregate outside of the Westminster Cold Weather Shelter before its 7 p.m. opening on Jan. 22. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda / January 21, 2014)

For McDaniel College juniors Dinambi Butler and Maurice Paul, enrolling in a January semester course on the meaning of homelessness wasn't just a way to fulfill a graduation requirement.

It was also a reminder of where they've come from.

Butler and Paul are among 10 students in the class the college is offering for the first time this year as part of its 50 January classes, which also include internships and independent study opportunities

Both said they lived in shelters for a period of time as children -- Butler in Washington, D.C., and Paul in Baltimore.

As they near the end of the course, Butler said the experiences in and outside of class have been humbling and make him thankful for where he is today.

"It shows you that, no matter who you are, bad things can happen to you," he said. "You just always have to treat them [the homeless] as you want to be treated."

Before graduating, each McDaniel student is required to complete a January term course.

This January, 572 students are taking a course, including 176 off-campus opportunities and 76 internships or independent studies.

Associate professor of social work Jim Kunz decided to offer the homelessness course this year after a positive response from students last year who participated in a research project and volunteered with the county's annual Point in Time survey. The survey is an annual estimate of homeless in Carroll County.

Kunz said he was surprised by how many students signed up for the course this year, and more surprised by how many said they had experienced homelessness in their lives.

"I've learned as much as I've taught in this class," Kunz said.

Almost half of the students said they have stayed in shelters or had to do "couch surfing," staying with friends and family, without a permanent place to live.

That experience, though, wasn't a reason to sign up for the class, they said.

"It was just a coincidence," sophomore Ashley Pritchard said.

As a child, Pritchard said she lived with family and friends but also recalled sleeping in her parents' van at times.

Pritchard, who grew up in Glen Burnie, acknowledged that it's been hard to reflect on what she's been through while taking the class.

"But at the same time, it's like I still have it better than some of these people," she said.

Pritchard acknowledged that her situation differed from that of the homeless she met during the class in that she and her family often had friends or relatives willing to give them a place to stay.

"A lot of the people that we've met don't have that ability, to have people who care enough to house them or help out," she said.

During the course, students discussed the government definition of homeless and the actual definition of life on the streets. They also compared being homeless in an urban setting, such as Baltimore, to a more rural setting, such as Westminster.

"I've never really seen the things that this class has allowed me to see," said Matt Rehak, who has lived in Hampstead since he was 10.

Rehak, a junior majoring in social work, said he never knew many of the services available to homeless in Carroll existed.

"Word needs to be spread about those services, so people who don't know about them can utilize them as well," he said.

Carroll County has five shelters for the homeless: a family shelter, a women's and children's shelter, a men's shelter, a safe-haven shelter, and a cold-weather shelter.

Kunz said he hopes to continue the course in future years and a number of students have already expressed interest in volunteering with local organizations after the course ends.

Paul is one of those students.

"It made me want to reach out more and do more to give back to help the homeless population especially in my own city of Baltimore," he said.

According to the 2013 Point-in-Time survey, there were 134 homeless living throughout the county, although Kunz acknowledged that the number is normally an undercount.

The 2013 count included 103 adults and 31 children.

Carroll was scheduled to perform its 2014 point-in-time survey Thursday, and students in Kunz' class volunteered to help.