Don’t ignore our “invisible” community as classes resume this fall


Christine Park

If the college chooses to have people attending classes in Boston and acknowledges its responsibility to provide testing, it must also bear the burden of the danger this puts our homeless and low-income community members in.

Billy Brodeur is a senior studying comedic arts.

On a walk to Paramount my sophomore year, I turned a corner and saw my friend Paul slumped on the ground. Paul is a homeless man in his late 60s who sports a heavy limp. I met him one day outside of CVS when he asked me if I would buy him a roll of gauze tape. 

Since that day, I regularly sit with Paul at the Washington St. curb after my walk home from work. It is normal for me to pass through Downtown Crossing and see him. But one day, I watched in shock as people carelessly stepped over my friend’s prone body. There, I helped him get back on his feet and grab his walking stick.

That situation showed me how our community contributes to the kind of negligence that adversely affects the way we view the homeless. Our institutions on every level see through them and do not accommodate them into our time.

I fear that Paul and the other homeless people who live downtown are being actively endangered by the return of Boston’s college population in the midst of the enduring COVID-19 pandemic. To accommodate for the intense increase in foot traffic, travel, and population in the area, Emerson should take responsibility to allow free testing along with their new student locations. 

There are currently about 30 testing sites for COVID-19 in the greater Boston area. However, the closest sites that appear to operate in the downtown area are Massachusetts General Hospital (approximately a mile from campus) and a slightly closer facility open on weekdays in the Boston Living Center.

Many of these existing sites are appointment-based, meaning you need a phone or access to the internet to get tested, which many homeless or low-income people do not have. All other sites in the city are significantly further out from the area.

The opening of non-exclusive testing sites on campus would allow our neighbors—who may not have previously had access to a test—into a system designed to ensure the safety of our community at large. 

As a city, we cannot expect the homeless population to survive on random pop-up testing facilities they may be lucky enough to happen upon. We must begin to look at the homeless community in America, not by them. Emerson has the opportunity to use its influence in the area to encourage others to treat these community members with a shred of decency.

I dread the thought of Paul and other homeless people being around these sites where people can potentially transmit the virus. The Biogen Conference outbreak, which ushered in the age of COVID-19, directly infected half the residents of the Pine Street Inn. I also worry that the janitorial, culinary, and administrative staff at Emerson will be disregarded in the strategies for monitoring and providing safety on campus.

Will these campus sites treat them in their needs as well? If not, what point are we making by demanding students come only to provide testing for them alone? Where does that place our values as an institution?  

For anyone who would argue that Emerson has no responsibility to care for those outside its community, I remind you that few people would even have been able to come to campus if the college had not permitted it. Our arbitrary system of deciding what must be open and what is “non-essential” to society is one of many reasons we have extended this horrific suffering for so long. 

Emerson’s administration could easily reallocate excess testing kits and any they have set aside for students who have since decided to learn remotely toward operating a free walk-in center. Even donating these tests to Tuft’s free walk-in center would be so much smarter than using them for students that have no reason otherwise to be coming to campus. Emerson should demonstrate that it values human life more than the lives of its paying customers—not to mention it would be advantageous to Emerson’s own self-interest to provide these tests. 

If the college chooses to have people attending classes in Boston and acknowledges its responsibility to provide testing, it must also bear the burden of the danger this puts our homeless and low-income community members in.

I do not just fear for the homeless community as some abstract concept, some number to dwindle one way or the other. The harsh requirement of progress is empathizing with every family and individual around Emerson that would not have any defense from the onslaught of new bodies in place surrounding the Common. 

Before we ever experienced COVID-19, we stepped aside when others in our community needed help. We walked over them to avoid responsibility. It is not a question of class if a person deserves to have access to a COVID-19 test. Emerson has the capabilities of expanding its testing to allow for walk-ins, and it has a responsibility to protect the people it has chosen to endanger, whether willingly or not. They are primed to set a true example around a nation that has lost any compassion it once had for its downtrodden. 

There may never be a free testing site around the Boylston T stop, but there will be an army of Emerson students who can step up and change the way they might have been looking at their neighbor. I urge you not to ignore the suffering around the corner.