Courtesy of Don Burnes ’63
‘We have to create a groundswell of public opinion,’ Burnes says

During the spring semester, Don Burnes ’63 responded to a call from Princeton’s Center for Career Development asking alumni if they had internship opportunities for current students. 

Burnes, in collaboration with Kevin F. Adler, founder of the nonprofit Miracle Messages, is working on a new book about homelessness. The organization fights homelessness by reuniting families and strengthening social support. Burnes figured maybe an intern or two could help with research.  

He was surprised to receive nearly 20 applications from current students. Burnes ultimately took on nine interns, and an additional three were selected through Miracle Messages. Once the group was assembled, they got to work. 

Burnes, who majored in American and modern European history while at Princeton, is the founder and an adviser of the Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. He’s published books on poverty before, but says there’s still more work to be done.  

“We have done precious little in terms of really solving the problem,” Burnes says. “So one of my contentions is that in order to really move the needle forward we have to create a groundswell of public opinion to push the issue and convince decision makers and policy makers that we need to be spending a lot more time and energy and financial resources to address the problem.”

Read about other Tigers of the Week

Throughout the summer team members met weekly by Zoom to discuss their findings and ideas for the book. There are lots of aspects to the subject, but Burnes narrowed the students’ focus down to three areas: The types of systemic discrimination that various subgroups of the population have experienced; the concept of worthy vs. unworthy poor and its implications for our systems of aid and services; and the impact of social isolation in relation to those experiencing homelessness.

“It’s been absolutely fascinating,” Burnes says of the research the group has collected over the summer months. Their working title is, “When we walk by: Homelessness and the struggle to end relational poverty and systemic failure in America.”

The group grew as another Princeton student, Remy Reya ’21, connected with Burnes for his own research on homelessness and began sitting in on meetings. Even Burnes’ Princeton roommate, Myles Cohen ’63, who is an orthopedic surgeon, decided to join in on the discussions once he learned about the project. 

Burnes said he’s thrilled about the progress made toward the book and has truly valued the students’ input. “I have to say that the students have been even better than my expectations,” Burnes says. “I would do this kind of thing again in a heartbeat.” 

Throughout the summer he has grown close to the students. One intern, Claire Silberman ’22, decided to take a gap year working with an anti-poverty organization in Appalachia. Burnes says he was honored to be her reference. 

The internship ends Aug. 21, but four students have already signed on to continue interning with Burnes and Adler in the fall.

“I would like to emphasize what an incredible experience this has been this summer,” Burnes says. “It really has been wonderful.”