From Othering to Empowerment: Homelessness and Experiential Education

This is part of our special feature, Homelessness and Poverty in Europe.


In 2012, homelessness was at the center of political debates in Hungary. One of the nationalist-conservative governing party’s signature neoconservative policy measures was to inscribe the criminalization of homelessness in national law.[1] In Budapest, some subway stations and homeless shelters were raided by the police in an effort to crack down on homelessness; moreover, with the cooperation of local authorities and sometimes that of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focused on homeless care, the police also cracked down on homeless people living on the streets or in self-built shacks. These actions were met with resistance by civil actors, mainly by an advocacy group composed of homeless people and their allies called “The City is for All” (A Város Mindenkié).[2] I joined the group in 2012 and became the coordinator of a working group advocating for better sheltering conditions and, later, of a support group for homeless women.


Teaching homelessness

Empowering the homeless through education (research, workshops, or summer universities) has been a key strategy in the organization’s work.[3] Based on a Freirian[4] approach, the group has considered knowledge as a source of power as it links one’s personal experiences to structural processes to empower homeless people and battle negative stereotypes about homelessness. This approach has  been adopted by a member of the group, Gyula Balog, who created his own educational project—“Firsthand about Homelessness (Első Kézből a Hajléktalanságról)[5]—at the Shelter Foundation (Menhely Alapítvány).[6]

During the most intense period of the hate campaign against homeless people in Hungary, Gyula[7] invited me to participate in a workshop at a high school within the framework of his project. My role, as he put it bluntly, was to explain why a middle-class, privileged person would engage in advocacy on behalf of homeless people. I decided to go, nervously, as I had not had any prior teaching experience. My anxiety intensified when the school’s headmaster told us that many students in the class faced behavioral challenges. He was so worried about leaving us alone with the students that he sent in the physical education (PE) teacher to accompany us.

In the classroom, Gyula started to speak about his childhood, experience with alcoholism, homelessness, and advocacy. The students were intrigued, paid attention, and asked many questions. They also participated in the board game about homelessness that had been developed for the project. The PE teacher ended up leaving after 45 minutes, and the workshop did not turn out the way I had expected. I assumed students would be hostile towards us, as homeless people had been constructed as the main enemy of society in the media. Yet, that classroom became a space of empathy, in sharp contrast to what was happening in society at large at the time.

Later, as a PhD student researching housing and citizenship, I came to teach a variety of courses at Hungarian universities. The topic of homelessness has always prompted students to participate and reflect on the structural causes of exclusion and on their own societal position. Based on my teaching experience, this paper examines how engaging with homelessness through experiential education in diverse higher education settings can be an effective way to empower both students and people experiencing homelessness. I first explore ways in which learning about homelessness helps students reflect on systemic exclusion and improve their critical thinking skills. I then focus on why it is crucial to rely on experiential learning as a teaching philosophy[8] to avoid the reproduction of stereotypes about homeless people, and I explain how I implemented these strategies in my teaching practice.

Because it is visible in public spaces, homelessness is a social issue that everyone  encounters. However, these encounters and the negative media imagery of homelessness may lead to prejudice. Homeless people are often perceived as constituting the homeless body,[9] i.e., a homogeneous, threatening, and alien phenomenon to be eliminated from public space. In reality, homelessness is caused by a wide range of systemic processes such as housing exclusion, precarious labor conditions, racism, gender inequalities, or the social exclusion of people with physical or mental disabilities. Learning about homelessness thus enables students to connect their prior experiences with this emotionally disturbing and complex social problem to its structural causes, which cannot be observed directly on the streets, thus allowing them to critically engage with homelessness.


The importance of experiential education

While having students learn about homelessness can improve their critical thinking and analytical skills, it is also important to think about how this learning benefits people in housing poverty. When teaching about homelessness, the risk is to present homeless people as passive subjects or use them as tools to illustrate social problems; this subjectification furthers structural exclusion. However, experiential education can offer guidance about how to avoid these pitfalls  and empower both students and the communities with which they engage to implement positive change.

In his book, Experiential Education in the College Context,[10] Jay W. Roberts defines experiential education as a teaching philosophy that combines the principles of active, project-based, community-based, and integrative learning. Experiential education relies greatly on case studies, simulations, or other game-based activities in which students have to cooperate and collaborate. The courses are usually project-based, which means that either the entire semester is based on one large project or that classes involve smaller-scale activities or case studies where students must solve complex problems. Moreover, experiential education often involves projects that take place within communities. In fact, both the design and delivery of experiential learning courses are based on the key principle that these courses must serve a particular community and that the students’ work should provide some benefits to communities outside of the classroom. Additionally, integrative learning means that students’ learning is embedded in their prior knowledge and experience and offers ways for students to apply the knowledge and skills acquired in the course in their future professional positions.

When it comes to the teaching of homelessness, experiential education has been primarily used in social work programs. In one documented case, people experiencing homelessness were invited as experts to co-teach a course about homelessness with an instructor in a course in social work in Brno, Czechia.[11] The students presented projects in which they reflected on the structural causes of homelessness and on policy solutions, and the homeless experts gave them feedback on their conclusions. In another documented case, an interdisciplinary elective course was organized for students in medicine, pharmacy, nursing, and law to support people experiencing homelessness in Rhode Island, US.[12] In that particular project, students not only attended lectures and clinical skills workshops on campus, but they also conducted outreach activities on the streets with the support of a case manager. They linked the experience of a homeless person—who was considered a partnered participant rather than a “client”—to structural processes. They also attended a local community meeting to discuss policy changes and presented their own policy analyses in relation to the case. These two examples illustrate some of the ways homelessness can be taught through experiential education. However, these activities involved students who will work with people experiencing homelessness in their professional careers, which is not necessarily the case for most students in social sciences. While critical thinking skills and knowledge about social exclusion are extremely important aspects of learning in these disciplines, ways to introduce experiential learning tools are less obvious.


Practicing experiential education when teaching about homelessness

As an instructor, I found the experiential education strategies Roberts outlines[13] extremely helpful not only to achieve the learning goals outlined in my course syllabi[14] but also to avoid stereotypes and tokenism. Moreover, these strategies allowed me to meaningfully engage both people experiencing homelessness and students. In particular, Roberts emphasizes the importance of backward design[15] to develop a plan for each course according to the learning goals to be achieved. In the case of homelessness, learning goals should focus on the systemic causes of homelessness, solutions, and ways to empower the homeless. Thus, classroom projects, case studies, and activities should be designed to achieve these goals, for example through direct, personal encounters with people experiencing homelessness, which I organized in one of my courses.

However, students do not necessarily explicitly understand the learning goals and context of the course, at the beginning of which they might naturally rely on the stereotypes about homelessness with which they are familiar. Therefore, if a field trip to a shelter is organized without being sufficiently contextualized, it might reinforce these stereotypes or leave the students wondering what the aim of the field trip is and how it connects to the readings and class discussions. Even worse, if not planned carefully and with sensitivity toward homeless people’s private sphere, such field trips could become an opportunity for homeless people to be watched as spectacle. Hence, framing[16] or “making the invisible visible”[17] is crucial. Framing the issue might involve providing students with information about the structural context and discussing students’ prior knowledge about homelessness. When teaching about homelessness, framing should also entail creating spaces for meaningful engagement with people experiencing homelessness and integrating field trips into projects that could benefit the community. These strategies relate to what Roberts refers to as the “art of ownership,”[18] which means that students should work on projects or cases that allow them to process the knowledge and experience they have about homelessness. These types of activities present a dual benefit: first, problem solving requires critical thinking, empathy, and active engagement from students; second, people experiencing homelessness can participate in these projects as experts.

One of the key challenges when teaching about homelessness is to keep a balance between focusing on the structural processes that produce homelessness and organizing projects, case studies, or class activities. Experiential education offers two solutions to this dilemma: first, the art of empathy[19] allows students to connect their prior knowledge to the activities at stake and the wider context. Students often find academic spaces intimidating, but stepping out of the traditional classroom setting and opening spaces for students’ and homeless people’s experiences motivates students to share their prior knowledge and reflect on it. However, connecting cases and personal experience to structural processes can still be difficult. Thus, a second strategy is needed: “chunking.”[20] Chunking means that the starting and ending points (the wider context) of the course have to be re-emphasized during each session. Additionally, the wider context must be broken down into smaller issues, or “chunks.”

In the case of homelessness, research and teaching often focus on definitions, numbers, and individual causes. However, topics addressed in the classroom should reflect the goal of shifting the attention to structural exclusion. Such topics could include the problematization of public and media discourses about homelessness and the  imagery associated with homelessness, as well as the consequences of these discourses and images on the construction of political problems and policy solutions. In addition, homeless people should not simply be presented as passive victims but as citizens who advocate for their own rights, bringing in a set of challenges I discuss in relation to my case studies.


Experiential education through participatory learning tools: case studies

To illustrate the implementation of experiential education strategies in teaching about homelessness, I summarize three cases from my teaching practice. The first case is an overarching project designed for business students; it involves assignments, class discussions, and a field trip to a family shelter. The second case is an awareness training session for international relations (IR) students. The third case involves role-playing in a public policy course.


Project ONE: business students help people staying at shelters

Project ONE was part of an elective course for Hungarian Bachelor of science (Bsc) students in business. The class included nine online students and five on-campus students. The learning goal in this project was to enable students to analyze complex social issues from an interdisciplinary perspective and to raise their awareness about the social exclusion of homeless people, thus enhancing their analytical, critical thinking, and communication skills.

Experiential learning principles were applied through assignments that were developed in cooperation with a group of social workers at a homeless shelter in Budapest. Students participated in activities to help the shelter’s residents. The syllabus included suggestions for three different projects, and field trips to shelters were planned. In addition, a group of students developed their own project. One project aimed at organizing a basic financial skills workshop for young people living in a family shelter. Another project, which was designed by a group of students, was based on a phone application developed in Hungary to reduce food waste by enabling restaurants, cafés, and grocery stores to sell food that has reached its expiration date at a reduced price. The students wanted to connect families living in a shelter to local businesses who sold these low-cost. Each project was broken down into four steps or assignments. At each stage, students had to summarize how the project was progressing and their personal reflection on the activities.


Self-reflection and ownership

Initially, students were not familiar with these types of assignments and therefore had some difficulties understanding the expectations. While the field trip to the family shelter was helpful and motivated the them, students raised concerns about their ability to address these projects, especially in the case of the workshop; indeed, they felt that, because privilege was the source of their own secure financial position, they would not be able to share meaningful knowledge with the young people living at the shelter. This concern illustrates how such assignments can motivate self-reflection. Students solved their dilemma through empathy and by explaining how their prior knowledge could benefit the youngsters (displaying the art of empathy). In addition, we broke down the assignment into concrete topics and concrete steps to be taken (chunking).

Another issue was the lack of participation by people experiencing poverty. These projects were based on the community and meant to empower people living in shelters. However, the latter did not participate in the discussions pertaining to the design of the projects. In the future, to tackle this problem, the assignment could be designed in a way that allows coordinators at shelters to delegate a partnered participant or an inhabitant to present the projects to people living in the shelters. My original idea was that the shelters that invite the class for a field trip should also benefit from the cooperation. For this reason, I was reluctant to expect that shelters’ residents would become involved in the process, as I was unsure about which approach would best benefit the community.


Project TWO: relying on the knowledge and expertise of people with homelessness experience

The second project’s learning goal was to foster students’ critical thinking about social exclusion and to enhance their communication skills. Fifteen international undergraduate  students in international relations enrolled in the course, which was based on experiential learning principles and designed as a three-day mandatory awareness training. Two days were spent on campus, and the third day consisted in online activities. On the second day, I co-taught the day’s sessions with participants from the Firsthand About Homelessness program. In preparation, we helped students reflect on the different forms of oppression in homeless people’s lives based on Iris Marion Young’s chapter “Five Faces of Oppression.”[21] The session started with people who had experienced homelessness and a social worker sharing personal life stories. Then, students played a board game that involved role-playing: students played the role of roofless persons seeking shelter for the night and facing real-life challenges. The members of the Firsthand About Homelessness program played the role of police officers, passersby, social workers, and more. In the meantime, Gyula Balog, as the facilitator of the game, asked students some questions and motivated them to in turn ask questions. Students also distributed issues of the street paper Fedél Nélkül,[22] which is usually handed out by homeless people in Budapest. The game was followed by a discussion about homelessness and policy-based solutions.


Institutional barriers when co-teaching with homeless people

This second project helped prevent tokenism, as homeless people actively participated in it by sharing not only their stories but also their ideas about structural solutions to the problems they encounter. However, it was still necessary to frame the activity for students and link it to the other class sessions, in particular to the topic of oppression about which students had read prior to taking part in the activity. The lack of pathways for including people experiencing homelessness within the university setting constituted a main challenge in this case. Moreover, the members of the program only spoke Hungarian, so the session had to be translated. As the instructor, I asked Hungarian students to help with translating, which they were happy to do, as it clearly made them feel empowered and active in the class. Another challenge was that the program emanating from a public university, it lacked a specific budget for activities. Participants were not required to pay a specific fee; however, I raised money for the program through my social media account in an effort to better serve the participants. This budgetary challenge indicates that universities should also provide institutional pathways and a budget for including people experiencing social exclusion and for translation.


Project THREE: criminalization, social housing, and role-playing based on a real life scenario

The learning goal of this last project was to expose students to the theories of public policy and policy-induced dilemmas and enhance their critical thinking, analytical, and communication skills. The on-campus course was designed as an elective course taught in English. Nine undergraduate students in political science participated. Experiential learning principles were applied in the sessions through reflections about how the framing of a policy problem can influence the construction of responsibilities and solutions. In preparation, students read an article[23] about policy framing analysis by Mieke Verloo. The main scenario for the role-playing exercise was based on a real-life situation: a rough sleeping homeless woman had been arrested by police officers for repeatedly using public space as habitation—an action that constitutes a misdemeanor in Hungary. She therefore received a warning and faced trial. The setting for the role-playing was a local council meeting in the district where the woman had spent her nights. She and a homeless advocacy group had called for the meeting to find a housing solution for her after the trial. They teamed up with another NGO whose purpose is to help homeless people move into social housing that the homeless themselves renovate. The meeting was attended by the mayor, the deputy mayor responsible for social affairs, a local police officer, a social worker from a local shelter, the manager of the council housing units, and a women’s rights NGO. Students received a short description about their respective roles and a few guiding questions about how to frame policy problems, who is responsible for implementing solutions, and what different solutions would entail. I facilitated the meeting by summarizing the scenario and the arguments, asking people to share their views, moderating the debate, and concluding the meeting. After the discussion, students shared their thoughts about the situation, their respective roles, and the role of policy framing in the debate.


Engaging students through role-play: including homeless participants

Some people were initially reluctant to join the debate; this was especially true for the person who had to speak in the name of the homeless woman at the center of the case. Sometimes, this hesitation was due to language barriers. As the facilitator, I asked questions, which was an effective way to help students contribute and reflect on their respective roles. For example, when students did not speak up during the role-playing exercise, I asked them afterward whether their silence was related to their role in the role-play. It often was. Either they felt the person they played would not have anything to say in the meeting due to lack of power or competence or they were confused about the role itself. This feedback, on the one hand, prompted discussions about the role of policy actors. On the other hand, it helped me refine the descriptions of the different roles for the next role-playing exercise.

Time was also a challenge: Roberts[24] argues that education is like chewing gum, where the gum is the information provided by the professor and the chewing represents the way students process this information. Experiential education puts much more emphasis on the chewing than on the gum—in contrast to the typical classroom setting—and can result in unfamiliar situations for both instructors and students. It takes some practice to adjust to new experiences, and enough time must be dedicated to chewing. In the project at stake here, one of the main conclusions was that role-play requires more than one session, so that there is enough time to chew. I also realized that role-playing could have been more empowering if homeless activists involved in such advocacy cases had participated, because they could have given valuable feedback on the role-play.


Building partnerships through teaching about homelessness: bringing together students, homeless people, and social care providers

Teaching about homelessness can enable a critical understanding of structural exclusion and empower both students and people experiencing homelessness. To avoid tokenism and stereotyping, it is important to turn to the philosophy of experiential education. Experiential education offers strategies about how to keep the focus on the societal and policy contexts. It also allows instructors to design and teach their courses in a way that serves people experiencing homelessness. Other effective strategies include relying on students’ knowledge and prior experience and planning projects and activities in which students, homeless people, and social workers become partnered participants. Experiential learning also provides enough time and space for creativity and reflection, allowing for the creation of a roadmap to translate how the general context is connected to individual topics and activities. These strategies have been helpful to my practice when teaching about homelessness. However, there remains a dire need in higher education for more methodological guidance, institutional pathways, and resources to include people experiencing homelessness or other forms of social exclusion as partnered participants, experts, and co-teachers, rather than as subjects, not only to learn about them, but to learn about ourselves with them.


Katalin Ámon is a PhD student at the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations at the Central European University. Her research focuses on acts of citizenship in the area of housing in Hungary and Spain. She is an instructor at the International Business School in Budapest.



[1] For detailed accounts of the criminalization of homelessness and homeless people’s organizing against it in Hungary, see: Éva Tessza Udvarhelyi, ““If we don’t push homeless people out, we will end up being pushed out by them”: The Criminalization of Homelessness as State Strategy in Hungary,” Antipode 46, no. 3. (2014), 816-834; Katalin Ámon, “Revanchism and Anti-revanchism in Hungary: The Dynamics of (De)Politicisation and the Criminalisation of Homelessness,” in Comparing Strategies of (De)Politicisation in Europe, eds. Jim Buller, Pinar E. Dönmez, Adam Strandring, Matthew Wood (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 209-236.

[2] See (accessed: April 14, 2023)

[3] The importance of empowerment through education is also reflected in the fact that a group of former “The City is for All” members founded “The School of Public Life” (A Közélet Iskolája), an NGO that offers a variety of courses about political organizing: (accessed: April 14, 2023)

[4] Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher who outlined the key principles of critical pedagogy in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (UK: Penguin Random House, 2017)

[5] See (accessed: April 14, 2023)

[6] See (accessed: April 14, 2023)

[7] I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to Gyula Balog for including me in the program, for bringing it to my classes, and for teaching me in the past years. I also would like to thank Adrienn Szigeti, a fellow activist teaching with us in that memorable high school class. Szigeti sadly passed away a few years ago.

[8] I would also like to say thank you to the former instructors of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Central European University, who taught me the theoretical and methodological foundations of experiential education: Helga Dörner, Gorana Mišić, and Margaryta Rymarenko.

[9] Samira Kawash, “The Homeless Body,” Public Culture 10, no. 2. (1998), 319-339.

[10] Jay W. Roberts, Experiential Education in the College Context: What it is, how it works, and why it matters (New York and London: Routledge, 2016)

[11] See Markéta Geregová and Magda Frišaufová, “People with experience of long-term drug use and homelessness teaching with us: Experts by experience participation in university social work education,”Social Work Education 39, no 3. (2020), 315-328.

[12] See Deborah H. Siegel, Megan C. Smith and Sara C. Melucci, “Teaching Social Work Students About Homelessness: An Interdisciplinary Interinstitutional Approach,”Journal of Social Work Education 56., no. 1. (2020).

[13] Roberts, Experiential Education in the College Context, Chapter 5, 87-106.

[14] The learning goals varied from class to class, but typically included enhancing the student’s analytical and critical thinking skills through the analysis of public policies and complex social issues.

[15] Roberts, Experiential Education in the College Context, Chapter 5, 88-90.

[16] Roberts, Experiential Education in the College Context, Chapter 5, 92-95.

[17] Roberts, Experiential Education in the College Context, Chapter 5, 92.

[18] Roberts, Experiential Education in the College Context, Chapter 5, 99-101.

[19] Roberts, Experiential Education in the College Context, Chapter 5, 95-98.

[20] Roberts, Experiential Education in the College Context, Chapter 5, 98-99.

[21] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression”, in Geographic Thought: A Praxis Perspective, eds. George L. Henderson and Marvin Waterstone (New York, USA: Routledge, 2009), 55-71.

[22] See (accessed 14th of April, 2023)

[23] Mieke Verloo, “Mainstreaming Gender Equality in Europe: A Critical Frame Analysis Approach,” The Greek Review of Social Research, no. 117B (2005), 11-34.

[24] Roberts, Experiential Education in the College Context, Chapter 5, 100.


Published on July 12, 2023.


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