William Dunbar: How the homeless helped me find a major

November 20, 2010 

A few weeks ago, I added my signature to a student petition aimed at allowing the homeless to stay in their tent town.

As any local knows, the Merced City Council has enforced its no-camping ordinance and dispersed those communities and closed all the city's homeless camps.

The resolution of this issue is still unsure, as the homeless begin to wander the streets of Merced, looking for any place warm and safe enough to sleep. But it made me reflect on the uncertainty of my own future.

I still had a major problem of my own: Deciding my major.

I was feeling lost at college, intellectually homeless. I felt as though I had no fixed place, and instead, was wandering the campus in an attempt to find a focus within the many academic disciplines offered on the UC campus.

But in signing that petition, I found myself wondering: What caused all of these homeless to congregate in that locale? How does this drive down property values? Why was the plight of the homeless striking such a chord among students on the UC campus? And in what ways does this cost the city and its taxpaying citizens?

As I found myself thinking about the homeless, I realized I was considering their plight through the constructs of the courses and ideas I have encountered at the UC.

My professors had helped me develop a process through which to analyze what was happening. Many of these constructs involved the economics of the situation -- the cost to society and to the people involved.

This basic economic theory was helping me understand the community in which I live.

And then it dawned on me that I had at least found one answer.

I've declared myself as an economics major.

In observing one problem, I found myself solving another.

Economics, as a field, is an interesting discipline. However, I am already wondering if I'll want to evaluate markets for a living. Will I continue to enjoy crunching numbers to find costs and benefits?

Though I still have questions, I have, at least, reached some satisfaction with this decision: I am trying to do something to find my own future.

The campus' Counseling Center has been an excellent source of guidance.

In addition to helping me arrange my schedule for the last three semesters, it has offered me countless bits of advice. I have gone into the offices for this exact purpose and have found some comfort in the path I'm taking.

I'm also more comfortable with being flexible should economics not be the right fit. The Counseling Center has definitely helped me make the "major" decision in college.

As to the homeless problem, I'm not necessarily advocating handouts; rather, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, we should be willing to help those who are willing to help themselves.

Those individuals who really want a job and a decent place to live should get all the help we can give them, from counseling to a hand up and out of the depths. Helping them helps all of society.

But can anyone really help those whose strongest desire is to live in the shadows because they don't want anyone to know what they're up to? Would our efforts go to waste? From an economic theory standpoint, is there a return on such an investment?

There is a certain relief in choosing a major; discarding the label of "undecided" and putting down academic roots. It's finding an intellectual home.

In that sense, helping the homeless is about making choices. Our choice to help, their choice to accept that help and then what to do with it. We all hope our choices turn out to be the right ones.

William Dunbar is an economics major and Regent's Scholar at UC Merced.

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