A group of DeSales High School seniors hopes drivers heading West on Muhammad Ali Boulevard will not only glance at a billboard that shows a homeless man sitting with his head hung low. They hope that image will spur them to take action.
The billboard sits at the corner of W. Muhammad Ali Boulevard and S. Sixth Street. Off its dark background, the words call out, “Help Trapped Louisvillians Escape.”
It was designed by DeSales seniors Trevor U’Sellis, Beau Clark, and Alex Grasmick as an answer to the question: “How can we raise awareness of poverty among our peers in the United States?”
The question was posed by Kari Ogle, a theology teacher in their social justice class.
“There’s a need for change and hopefully the billboard will affect (people), from the average Joe to the city official,” said U’Sellis, who was selected to be the group’s spokesperson.
The 17-year-old said growing up he always associated homelessness with alcohol abuse and drug addiction, but his social justice class at DeSales helped him realize that’s not accurate, he said.
Part of the research he and his peers conducted while working on the project revealed that poverty, more so than alcohol abuse and drug addiction, contributes to homelessness, he said.
“If you learn this at an early age, it changes your outlook,” said U’Sellis. “There needs to be an awareness because something can be done.”
U’Sellis and his classmates believe poverty is like a trap in which individuals can get caught. He thinks of poverty as a box: Once inside, the person needs a ladder to help climb out. The ladder, he said, needs to come from the outside.
“It’s not something they can easily get out of. It’s a cycle, even if you get out you can fall back in. But if someone helps or a community helps it can make a difference,” he said.
The social justice class at DeSales is a requirement for every student, who must take the class in his junior year.
Ogle said, “Ultimately it’s to teach the seven tenets of Catholic social teaching, but the basis is to know that every person has dignity and deserves to be treated as such. We arrive at that through learning about empathy.”
Ogle said the students learn about the cycle of poverty, how it happens and that it can happen to anyone.
Though costly, U’Sellis’ group chose a billboard because they believe it could have a lasting impact, he said. Upon inquiring into cost, Maloney Outdoor Advertising offered to donate the billboard space, said Ogle.
DeSales’ principal Anastasia Quirk agrees that this project is impactful.
A project such as this one helps the students “make an outside real-world connection and connects them to the community,” said Quirk. “The students have the responsibility to do something with the knowledge they’ve gained. … It’s not just an idea floating out there.
“They get a sense of accomplishment and it empowers them to know they have that ability,” Quirk said.
She added that the use of the word “trapped” in the billboard’s message is “very powerful” and it shows the students’ understanding of poverty.
“I love that they used the word trapped because often we miss that point. … But a word like ‘trapped’ brings emotions to the surface and hopefully will encourage people to look a little further,” she said.
The group conducted research that showed the level of poverty in Louisville to be comparable to that of some larger cities such as Chicago and New York City. Through collaboration with the Coalition for the Homeless, the group found that the availability of affordable housing was an issue.
They also learned that working families earning minimum wage are in danger of becoming homeless.
“I was surprised to find out how high the poverty rate is in Louisville,” said U’Sellis. “It’s not one person’s fault. It’s a collective group because we’re not doing anything to help out.”
The billboard displays a link to the website of the Coalition for the Homeless. The address points directly to a page about ending homelessness through advocacy that envisions “housing for all.” The address is, www.louhomeless.org/advocate.
U’Sellis and his classmates hope drivers will stop and take a picture of the billboard and then take time to visit the website and find ways to become involved.
“I think even if two people see it, I will be the happiest kid in the world,” he said.