Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

The criminalization of unhoused and impoverished populations in “college towns”

Photo by Ryli Stoker.

A lot of Emerson students act like they have never seen unhoused people before.  

The first time I picked up on this was in a dorm with a small group of fellow students. One person was talking about how their dad is a cop in Boston, and he advised them to never walk alone at night because “there’s so many criminals in the Common.” The group gasped, and the room was scattered with disbelief.  Having spent a lot of time in Boston pre-Emerson, I was also shocked—although my suprise was more of a “what the fuck are you talking about?” sort of thing.

While I am an advocate for the buddy system, carrying pepper spray, and sharing locations with close friends, that does not mean I believe I am constantly in danger because I live in a city. In fact, I’d do the same when I was living in my rural hometown in New Jersey. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel safe, but there is something morally gray about only feeling safe when you’re exclusively living with upper middle class residents.  

However, this inherently privileged and dramatic view of poverty and unhoused individuals is unsurprising considering the 2022 New York Times article that revealed that  “64% [of students at Emerson College] come from the top 20 percent” of family income.

Perhaps the lack of empathy comes from this inexperience with poverty, but everyday I watch students beeline away from unhoused people who are just walking on the street or trying to sleep. It’s one thing to be conscious of whether someone is following you, but it’s another to assume everyone is a malicious criminal. 

This assumption of criminality is reinforced in the prevalent belief that unhoused people are unpredictably violent or volatile. The idea of poverty/need equating to innate violence is a dated and classist means of policing profitable areas. 

In an article for the publication Social Justice, Randall Amster dissects the historic strategy of assigning moral values to neutral acts through law making. Because of laws criminalizing behavior like loitering, begging, or sleeping in public spaces, houselessness is correlated with criminality and thus immorality. This method of indirect moralizing reinforces public fear of houselessness and unhoused people.  

Amster also explains that the criminalization of these behaviors is allegedly applied to the general public, however one can easily see that this is often not true. For example, sleeping in public is often only a crime or a “danger” when you’re houseless.

When college students spend hours sitting, smoking, or sleeping in the Common, it’s something cute or quirky to post on Instagram. When an unhoused person sleeps in public, they risk being charged with loitering and receiving a one hundred dollar fine and up to twenty-four hours of imprisonment. The double standard reinforced by these laws essentially prevents houseless people from legally existing in many public places. This prohibition is reinforced by hostile architecture throughout the city. From spiked concrete, to “arm rests” on benches, or the replacement of benches with small planks of wood, anti-homeless architecture prevails in many major cities across the U.S..

The process of slowly ostracizing impoverished communities in order to make an area feel “safer” isn’t just an Emerson problem, or even just a Boston problem. The research being referenced in Amster’s article was based across the country in Tempe, Arizona, where a number of reporters covered the city’s/ASU’s response to homelessness. However these same tactics for vilifying unhoused people are very palpable in Boston.  

When college students and trust-fund transplants move into these historically urban and diverse spaces, the original populations are not only displaced from their homes, but also criminalized for their lack of housing. Colleges like Emerson overhaul and claim space for their facilities and student residences that entire histories, populations, and cultures are erased. When Boston schools like Emerson, Suffolk, Northeastern, BU, etc. buy up hotels and apartment complexes to be turned into student housing, rent for non-student residents becomes more and more unattainable.  

This sort of gentrification really isn’t just an Emerson problem, or even just a Boston problem. This increase of rent prices and decrease of available housing is consistent in many “College Towns” across the country and throughout modern American history.  Louis Hansen explains that the displacement of Black families in Charlottesville, VA and Norfolk, VA by UVA and ODU has persisted since 1890. Professor Davarian Baldwin of Trinity College calls this phenomenon  the “Univer-city”.  He lists Los Angeles County, New Haven, Hartford, New York City, Chicago, and Phoenix as prime examples of major cities and communities that have experienced these university buyouts.  

Not only do our schools indirectly force residents out of their homes/businesses by raising rent costs, but they also continue to purchase properties that can potentially become low-income and transitional housing.  There should be no shock, distaste, or judgment towards the impoverished and/or houseless community around our school, because our school and its student body plays a major role in creating and sustaining these inequities.  

The prevalent idea of the “College Town” or “Univer-City” assigns a sense of entitlement to students at schools like Emerson. These ideas imply that cities like Boston are designed for, run for, and occupied solely by members of the University communities.  Now, through the brute force and unmatched financial strength of these institutions, this is proving to be true.  However, it is the student body’s responsibility as much as it is the College’s responsibility to stop pretending like this major city is for us. Stop treating the people who have been here for years, the people whose history has been bought out and renovated by colleges, the people who cannot find housing in a city overrun by young, wealthy, college students, as though they are somehow the ones out of place.

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