Emerson students need more heart for the homeless

Emerson Student A: God, homeless people are so gross.

Emerson Student B: Ugh, yeah, why can’t they just leave us alone?

Chances are you’ve either participated in a similar conversation or overheard one yourself. Emerson is located smack in the middle of the city and walking past homeless people is simply part of life on campus. Sometimes they ask for money. Sometimes they catcall. And often, they make us feel uncomfortable.

But you know what is more uncomfortable than walking by some homeless guys?

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Being homeless.

According to Boston’s most recent homeless census, 7,681 men, women, and children are homeless in this city. But the truth is, most Emerson students have no idea what that really means. Our daily lives are plagued by problems that can be punctuated by some variance of  #soemerson, #whitegirlproblems, and #fml.

But even if empathy for the homeless doesn’t always come instinctively to the average Emersonian, I have to believe we can do better than make flippant comments about our homeless neighbors. There is no excuse for such insensitivity.

In our classrooms we speak with the utmost humanity and intensity regarding the struggles and hardships of people around the world. I am proud to be part of a community that values a globally conscious curriculum, but I fear we consistently fail to address the suffering that happens between the classrooms we sit in and the nearest CVS.

St. Francis House, the shelter and rehabilitation center, is less than a block from our campus and serves more than 800 poor and homeless men and women every day, according to its website. Yet in my nearly four years at Emerson, I have rarely — if ever — heard St. Francis House mentioned as more than an inconvenience.

According the Boston homeless census, a quarter of homeless people suffer from substance abuse, another quarter have disabling conditions, and 30 percent suffer from mental illness. Still others suffer from a combination of physical disabilities, domestic violence, and HIV/AIDS. Is that really a demographic of people we should treat with impatience?

I suspect our glib remarks about the homeless stem from our fear of their experience. Homelessness is sad and scary. Often it seems emotionally easier to speak in generalities about big global problems than it is to even make eye contact with the man begging for change on the corner.

The best way to combat fear is with education. Our Office of Service Learning and Community Action provides numerous programs for students who are looking to do community service — and even students who are specifically interested in working with the homeless.

Sadly, few among us have time to add a community service project to our schedules. We rush to and from our classrooms, discussing issues affecting Egypt, Haiti, and Sudan, pretending issues right here in Boston don’t exist. But they do exist and our failure to acknowledge the injustices literally around the corner fosters tactless behavior. It allows Emerson students to feel entitled — to be irritated and disgusted by the homeless rather than compassionate and concerned.

This attitude does not apply to all Emerson students, and those of you who have experience or insight into the realities of homelessness and poverty: Speak up. Do not let your classmates or professors belittle the people that need our support most.

You would never let your peers be derogatory about other minorities. Defend impoverished people in the same way you would ethnic groups, sexual identities, and religious beliefs — fiercely.

I don’t have all the answers, or even half of them, but I cannot believe that tolerating ignorant and abusive behavior toward our homeless neighbors is an acceptable option.

I urge our community to hold one another accountable, — to be more compassionate. Homeless people are, above all else, people. That fact alone is something Emersonians of all ages could do well to remember.