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Homeless College Instructor Teaches From Experience

October 3, 1991

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (AP) _ Homeless, angry and a bit uncomfortable lecturing the tiny college class, Len Doucette wants his students as riled up as he is.

His lectures are filled with anecdotes of street life, welfare lines and nights in shelters - fresh memories of four homeless years in San Francisco and Bakersfield.

Doucette, 55, said his course should dispel myths about the homeless and remind students that anyone is ″one or two paychecks away″ from the streets.

″I want to get my students as angry as I am about the conditions - angry enough to do something about it,″ Doucette said at the Cal State University Bakersfield campus where he lectures.

Doucette got his start in teaching leading field trips for students of Beverly Ovrebo, a public health professor at San Francisco State University.

″You get a sense of mission, and it’s genuine with him - he feels like nobody realizes or cares what is happening,″ she said.

Indeed, Doucette’s classes were slowed by student apathy. ″Homelessness and Public Policy″ was publicized as a televised course at four state university campuses, but only about a dozen students signed up.

″Pretty sad, isn’t it?″ said student Cathy Talley, a volunteer social worker. ″He has so much insight into the problem. But people don’t seem to be interested that we’re raising an entire homeless generation.″

A few students dropped the course after the first lecture, leaving eight enrolled at campuses in Fresno and Bakersfield. Doucette remains hopeful, saying the remaining students are ″terribly thirsty″ for details about homeless issues.

Doucette first became homeless four years ago after losing his clerical job. He lived in San Francisco, working part-time jobs that didn’t pay enough to cover rent. He briefly had his own apartment after moving the 300 miles south to Bakersfield this January, but is temporarily living with a friend because he can’t afford rent on his part-time instructor’s pay.

He will be paid no more than a few hundred dollars based on a per student formula, said Jaci Ward, a program coordinator at the college.

″There’s a lot of pain, a lot of stigma and very real trauma attached to being a homeless person,″ Doucette said in an interview. ″I’ve literally lived day by day. I’ve learned how to survive on the streets.″

In his lectures, Doucette blames unsympathetic bureaucrats, politicians and greed for an ″epidemic″ of homelessness that he claims is grossly understated.

″Rather than deal with it, they just hide it,″ he told the students. ″We who are on the bottom rung have absolutely nobody representing us at all.″

The first step toward a solution is challenging the stereotype ″that homeless people are lazy, that they are drunks or crazy,″ he said.

After a short quiz on poverty, students were given a homework assignment of interacting with homeless people.

Doucette acknowledges his lectures offer a one-sided view. He hopes guest lectures from politicians and social workers will give a balanced view.

Student Leonard Grube, a 51-year-old biology major who spent much of the 1980s homeless, said the course ″is a way of validating my whole experience.″