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Nitan Shanas, a Rutgers University-Camden senior, has never gone to bed worrying about having a roof over his head and he won’t rest until it’s a concern no one has to face.
“Sometimes people are even born into that situation,” says the triple major in economics, urban studies, and psychology. “I want to be able to give back to others who have not had the same fortunes as me.”
As Shanas recalls, he had his first up-close-and-personal experience with homelessness in 2017 when the then-high school senior and his friends took a trip to Washington, D.C. They had just finished eating and he had some leftover food. Rather than throw it out, he decided to give it to a homeless man, who struck up a conversation. That interaction – the humanness behind the issue – would leave a lasting impression.
“I realized that when I am helping people, I can learn a lot from them as well, while striving to brighten up their day,” says Shanas, president of the Rutgers-Camden Student Governing Association (SGA), who graduates this month and was recently named a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship.
Beginning this summer, he will be placed with a nonprofit for five months doing direct service focused on antipoverty or antihunger initiatives through the program funded by the Congressional Hunger Center. He will then spend six months in Washington, D.C., doing advocacy around these issues.
The fellowship gives him the opportunity to continue the work he started at Rutgers-Camden trying to make a difference. Shortly after arriving on campus – following in the footsteps of his brother, No’ad Shanas, a 2017 biology graduate – Nitan took his commitment to helping others to a new level as a Rutgers-Camden Civic Scholar, a role that he views as nothing short of “a privilege.”
“It is extremely rewarding to be part of a program focused on benefitting the city of Camden, working alongside other students who are just as passionate about social issues as I am,” says Shanas, a longtime Cherry Hill resident and a native of Gan Yavne, Israel.
Among his earliest experiences as a Civic Scholar, Shanas volunteered with New Visions, a day shelter for homeless adults in Camden. He recalls that the one-on-one talks he had with guests seeking services enabled him to see homelessness in a new light.
“It allowed me to understand the issue in quite a different way than I did coming from my own perspective and experiences,” he says.
When New Visions closed suddenly in 2018, Shanas immediately began working at Joseph’s House of Camden, an overnight homeless shelter serving around 85 homeless adults every night. He initially worked as a night/morning greeter and soon got the opportunity to work as a service navigator, helping guests secure a host of social services.
He then teamed with Joseph’s House to organize a “Sleepout for Homelessness.” More than 100 people participated in the event, which began with an informative three-hour program indoors. Participants then slept outside in the campus quad, followed by a morning reflection where participants were encouraged to share their thoughts on the experience.
Shanas also recently brought together a panel of nationally recognized experts for a virtual discussion on housing and homelessness, and was active in nationwide Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week efforts. As a research assistant, he studied homelessness and financially insecure children and their ability to succeed academically.
Whatever the cause, Shanas proved to be a steady, reliable presence on the Rutgers-Camden campus. In his role as SGA president, he worked with a team of “hardworking, dedicated individuals” to implement an ambitious agenda, focused primarily on mental health awareness and addressing online learning concerns. The team advocated with state legislators on two companion bills: NJ S550 and A1616, which require certain student identification cards to have the number for the suicide prevention hotline printed on the back. They also worked with student leaders from Rutgers University-New Brunswick and from Rutgers University-Newark to push for pass/no credit options for online courses during the pandemic.
“Serving as SGA president has been one of the most challenging, yet rewarding experiences I have ever had,” says Shanas. “I am proud of the progress we have made.”
Beyond the Rutgers–Camden campus, Shanas currently serves as a policy intern, focusing particularly on safe parking programs, at the National Homelessness Law Center, a legal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. He explains that homelessness is criminalized in many ways, such as laws that prevent people from eating in cars or parking in a particular spot for extended periods of time. Parking in safe locations, such as church parking lots, he says, makes it legal for people to park overnight.
“While it’s not a great solution, for some people, sleeping in a car is better than a shelter. They are both temporary options, but it’s what works for them,” he says, adding that the internship has been a great first-time experience understanding effective and not-so-effective practices in action.
Every opportunity that has been afforded, says Shanas, has been a way to grow and learn to be the best leader possible for a prospective career addressing homelessness policy on the federal level. He is quick to note, however, that he doesn’t want his voice to be heard, but rather uplift the voices of those experiencing homelessness.
“I want to take a step back and let other voices speak,” says Shanas. “It’s important to me that we listen and learn from others as we go along in the process.”