Established in 1989 by members of the building industry, Orange County, Calif.-based HomeAid America now stands as the nation’s leading provider of shelter beds in the United States for the temporarily homeless.  To date, the organization has completed 66 shelter projects nationwide, and has raised more than $35 million in cash and in-kind contributions through the efforts of more than 5,000 companies and 30,000 individuals to help more than 15,000 temporarily homeless men, women and children.
HomeAid America was looking for a way to elevate the understanding of the temporarily homeless and wanted to generate awareness of the organization and its efforts.  Because of this, HomeAid decided it wanted to do something to hang its hat on during National Hunger & Homeless Awareness Week (NHHAW) November 11-17.  Already working with Magnet Communications on a small $2,500 a month scale, the organization asked Magnet to come up with the “big idea” for NHHAW.  Magnet implemented a “soup to nuts” high school educational program and was responsible for the entire program.  Magnet whole heartily deserves an award for this program for not only the fantastic results, but for the time, energy and passion that was dedicated to this program.
To help dispel the myths of homelessness – that it generally isn’t the person pushing the shopping cart down the street; it could be your sister, mother, or aunt – Magnet came up with Project Safety Net™ (PSN).  The educational program was designed for high school students to actually experience different elements of being “homeless.”  During the course of NHHAW, students would focus on the growing problem of homelessness in Orange County and the United States.  Delving beyond facts and figures, the project would help students understand the “safety nets” that guard individuals from becoming homeless and would actually experience first hand what it is like to have those “safety nets” stripped away.
Magnet met and interviewed different social agencies (Rescue Mission, County of Orange, Orangewood Children’s Foundation) to discuss the program and what activities would be a good fit for PSN.  The Volunteer Center of Orange County (VCOC) helped us put together the first draft of plan. The VCOC had extensive background in educational programs and provided us with examples that would meet state educational curriculum standards.
PSN would provide a focused, proto-type program in which high school students would tell the homeless story.  Our objectives were to: 1.) dispel the myths of homelessness among high school students, 2.) educate students about homeless issues, in turn making them experts on the issue, and 3.) raise awareness HomeAid America through media relations.  Our strategy to meeting Objective #1 through providing students with an informative research component.  An informative and hands-on educational program would accomplish Objective #2, and an aggressive media campaign would solve Objective #3.  Our final goal was to: 1) raise awareness of homelessness  2) empower students to become passionately involved in the program  3) get positive coverage for HomeAid America.  Although HomeAid America provides Magnet a minimal fee of $2,500 per month, there was no set budget established and Magnet donated all hours and fee over $2,500.
During this time we fine-tuned the daily curriculum, guest speakers from the County of Orange and Orangewood Children’s Foundation were confirmed and media materials were written and sent to local TV, print and radio (existing media lists from HomeAid Orange County were given to Magnet).  Magnet also created a media release form for all students to sign (neither the school nor the district had one in place).  We researched other school districts to create one, and a liability form was made for all students and their parents to sign.
We had three major challenges:  1.) To design the program would meet school curriculum standards, 2.) To find a school willing to participate (on a tight deadline), and 3.) To get the students motivated to participate in the “voluntary” experiential program.
Challenge 1:  To make sure the program fit course curriculum, Magnet researched the Internet to find the California standards for high school history and economic classes.  We also met on a weekly basis with the Orange County Volunteer Center (OCVC) who had an extensive background in educational programs and provided examples.  After flushing out our program, it was time to find a school. 
Challenge 2:  HomeAid and the OCVC contacted a number of schools to participate – but none could fit it into their curriculum until spring 2002.  With only six weeks until NHHWA, Magnet had to find a school fast.  In mid-October, HomeAid America gave Magnet the lead of contacting Irvine High School. After many late night phone conversations with Jim Antenore, a world studies and history teacher there, a meeting was set up to discuss the program in further detail.  Magnet, along with Mike Lennon, CEO of HomeAid America, met with Mr. Antenore, Mrs. Terry Griffin (another participating teacher) and school Principal Gail Richards to sell the program.  One of the classes had just completed a unit on the Great Depression, so the tie-in with homelessness in the 21st century was timely. More changes were made to the program and by October 22, Irvine High was ready to participate in Project Safety Net.
Challenge 3:  Four classes would participate in Project Safety Net:  one world studies class (freshman) and three U.S. history classes (juniors).  Extra credit was not an incentive for students to participate.  Instead, Mr. Lennon came to the classes to rally and motivate the students.  He encouraged them to research the Internet to find timely articles on homeless issues and said he would be back in a week to discuss their findings.  Magnet created a participation/liability form that was handed out. By the time Mr. Lennon came back the following week, 90 percent of all classes had handed in their forms to participate.
The PSN Program: After meeting with Irvine High School officials on October 22, Magnet had just three weeks to pull together the program.  We sent a parent letter home to all four classes explaining the program and inviting them to attend a parent meeting on November 1.  Program specifics were not included in the letter (we didn’t want the students to know about each daily activity).  Nearly 25 parents attended the meeting to get more specific information on the program. 
The week’s activities began on Tuesday, November 13 (Monday was a holiday).  Mr. Lennon gave students an actual profile of a current/former homeless client, and explaining what safety nets were being stripped away (i.e. what they were wearing at the moment is what they had to wear the rest of the week, no showering until Thursday, and they were told they had to beg for lunch money the following day).  Guest speakers from the County and Orangewood Children’s Foundation addressed the students the following days to provide more insight to local homeless issues.  Thursday night, we had planned our big “media visual” for the night – a sleep out with the kids in their cars at a local park (next to the high school and in a fire station parking lot). 
The City of Irvine scrapped our plans at the last minute due to safety concerns.  Since we had TV scheduled to cover the sleep out and not wanting to lose the opportunity, we asked students if they would be willing to have media cover the event from one of their homes. A student volunteered, along with six of her friends, to have the media at her home. 
On Friday, Magnet coordinated the week’s final activity—a tour to a women and children’s shelter.  The following Monday, Magnet planned and executed two all-school assemblies for the students of PSN to share their experiences with the student body.  The event also included two former homeless speakers – people that some of the students only read about in homeless profiles they were given the week before.  Another highlight – congressional medals were given to Mr. Antenore and Mrs. Griffin from an aide for Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. 
In an unexpected turn during the week, one of the students’ participating in the program revealed that she and her family had been homeless.  Local media covered her story during the week and she shared her experience with the student body at the assembly.
Media Relations
Starting the week before PSN was to begin, we contacted media and got our first hit—Los Angeles Times Columnist Dana Parsons.  He wanted to interview the students prior to them participating in the program.  Mr. Lennon had only been in the classroom one day to introduce the program and performed an interactive brainstorm with the students on the myths of homelessness.  Although we had our reservations – not knowing what the students had to say at this premature point in time – the interview was set up. The result was a beautiful story that appeared in the Sunday edition of the Los Angles Times –full run.  It didn’t stop there.  The Times went on to write three more stories during the week.  In addition, the Orange County Register and other local papers wrote feature stories.  As for TV, FOX News covered three separate events and compiled a lengthy 2.5-minute feature story, while KABC-TV covered the sleep out activity.  Local radio also picked up on the momentum with KFWB and KNX –two top AM news stations – covering PSN.  ALL pieces featured a mention or an interview with HomeAid America.
The entire week was a huge success for HomeAid America.  From interviews with the media to the open mic segment at the all-school assembly, students shared that their viewpoints and perceptions had changed.  They were indeed “experts” on homeless issues.  In fact, the school’s principal even said parents had called her to thank her for PSN – students were cleaning their rooms and thanking their parents for all that they had.  Media results were tremendous with 46 million impressions made.  HomeAid was extremely pleased with all the results.  The organization received many calls from people around the U.S. wanting to have the program at their school and people wanting to volunteer their time with PSN.  HomeAid wants Magnet to create a PSN program to roll out nationwide to HomeAid chapters in 2002.