It wasn’t your typical summer camp memory. Sophie Roe ’19 first became involved in public service when she was a high school student in Pittsburgh, as a summer camp counselor at a home for women in recovery from substance abuse disorders who had been diagnosed with mental illness. The women and their children living there are considered homeless. Encountering the complexities of the problem of homelessness left its mark on Roe.
That was just a beginning for this year’s recipient of the $15,000 Donald A. Strauss Scholarship. Roe was awarded this scholarship for her record of community and public service and to advance her efforts with the organization she founded, Pomona Employment Partners of The Claremont Colleges (PEP). PEP is a student volunteer group which provides drop-in employment services at the city of Pomona’s largest homeless shelter to assist people with getting a job.
When she came to Pomona, Roe’s activism deepened as she got involved with the Draper Center for Community Partnerships.
Roe says she and others call the Draper Center, “the heart of Pomona [College].” From the Draper staff past and present, she says she has learned that “the most important thing is not that we do the work, but rather, how we do the work. All community projects should be shaped by the demands and requests of the community they serve, not by the outsiders who are implementing the project.”
Roe saw a real-life example of service being shaped by a community’s need during her summer internship at Boston Health Care for the Homeless. There, doctors go out to visit homeless patients wherever they are to administer care. Roe came to believe that employment assistance should do the same.
Inspired by a student-run employment assistance program at Yale University and conversations with the College’s Homelessness Action Team members Hannah Black ’20 and Jia Wu ’20, Roe gained the confidence to start the PEP program at The Claremont Colleges.
Roe says people experiencing homelessness are so consumed with seeking out food and shelter, and for some, coping with mental health disorders, that thinking about getting a job is nearly impossible. With PEP, the help comes to them. Roe and fellow volunteers go to the National Guard Armory shelter in the city of Pomona to assist people with resume and cover letter-writing and job applications. Next year, PEP will hold drop-in hours at the Mission Street shelter, the city of Pomona's first year-round shelter. They encourage clients that they can gain employment even with a history of incarceration or substance abuse.
Going forward, Roe aims to form partnerships between PEP and local businesses where past clients have been hired, in order to increase the likelihood that future clients will gain employment at these businesses.
Roe says PEP is possible because of volunteer leaders like Black and Marisol Diaz ’18, who helmed the group while Roe studied abroad in Denmark. Their spirit and “unyielding dedication” sustain PEP, she says.
With the Strauss scholarship, Roe is issuing a call for more of that spirit and dedication. PEP plans to expand to chapters at colleges and universities across Los Angeles County, and Roe will launch Students for Health and Socioeconomic Equity, the first-ever national partnership of undergraduate student-run social programs serving the homeless in their local communities, including social services like employment search and benefits coordination, assistance with applying for insurance, food stamps and more.
Roe is majoring in public policy analysis and biology. She just returned from studying medical practice and policy while abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, a place that she says confirmed for her that the scale of homelessness in the U.S. is the result of structural inequality.
Currently, she is home in Pittsburgh working on a homeless health care/Medicaid-related Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) project. Her aim is to become a primary care physician and provide accessible and effective health care services to people who have substance abuse disorders or are experiencing homelessness.
But her dreams are even bigger than that.
Roe says her Strauss project won’t overcome all the structural inequalities that cause homelessness, but with that scholarship in hand, she believes she can do something else.
“I hope to create a community of college student-advocates who will continue to combat these structural causes, so that we can bring an end to homelessness in our lifetimes."