Accounting grad questions assumptions about homeless

Chad Cottrill didn't know much about homeless people until this summer. He'd never spoken to one.

The Bridgeport (W.Va.) High School graduate, who received a WVU degree in accounting last May, entertained many of the assumptions most people have about that population. Homeless people, they expect, are drug addicts or alcoholics and have, largely, brought misfortune upon themselves.

But that wasn't the case with Gregory, whom Cottrill got to know in Denver as one of 1,200 students taking part in the Beta Alpha Psi annual conference and a concurrent United Way event called Project Homeless Connect.

"I thought that a homeless person had never had a home, but this guy once had a home and a family," Cottrill said. "I thought of them as freeloaders who would not help themselves, but he had a degree in music education, an excellent memory, and he knew a lot about politics. He simply couldn't hold a job because of a medical condition."

Cottrill, who is enrolled in the Master of Professional Accounting program, said the event changed his mind about homeless people. "I think everyone who participated was touched," he said. "It was a really good experience and helped me see the difference between people on the streets and those of us who have everything we want."

Cottrill with Client Gregory
Chad Cottrill, right, with his client, Gregory, at the Colorado Convention Center.

Each student was assigned a homeless client to support through various assistance offerings —ranging from legal aid to medical help and food stamps — at the Colorado Convention Center. "We were actually helping them to get their lives together. It was one-stop shopping for those who wanted to better themselves," Cottrill said. His client had been on the streets for three years. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that there are likely more than 3 million homeless in the United States, although pointing out that estimates are difficult to make.

Beta Alpha Psi President Teresa L. Conover said the organization became involved in the project because it embodied the group's values. "The Project Homeless Connect community service activity allowed over 1,000 students, faculty members, and professionals from Beta Alpha Psi to partner with the City of Denver and the Mile High United Way to help those in need. We value the opportunity to hold our annual meeting in Denver and giving back to the local community. We think that our student volunteers will benefit greatly by interacting with those in need. Volunteerism is an important tool of sustainability in our environment, both physically and socially."

Cottrill, who is working for United Bank in Morgantown and has a job waiting for him at Ernst & Young LLP in Pittsburgh, said the experience of getting to know a homeless person as an individual has changed his attitude. "I think I will look into programs to help volunteer my time working with the homeless in Pittsburgh," he said.

"The experience in Denver really changed my opinion regarding the homeless. They try every day to get the assistance needed to turn their lives around, as I experienced this with my client, Gregory. His goals were to get a birth certificate, legal services for bankruptcy, a resume and employment services, and housing assistance. His persistence showed me that he was willing to work hard for everything he wanted and he would not give up until he was successful in achieving his goals," Cottrill said. "My perception of homeless people not wanting to better their lives was altered after meeting Gregory and changed my outlook for helping the homeless in the future."