Under the title, “Keep Our Campus Free of the Homeless,” a student writing for the University of California, Irvine, school newspaper last year observed a “strange rise in the number of homeless people plaguing our campus.”
The worsening “plague,” the article went on to say, consisted of two people.
Judging from the comments — largely a debate over whether the article was supposed to be a satire — the writer’s attitude doesn’t reflect the views of many students.
Urban campuses and college towns frequently attract homeless people and panhandlers, partly because students lean toward tolerance. According to a survey by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, “The percentage of college students who [give money to panhandlers] tends to be higher than that of the general population.”
Students walk across the campus of UCLA on April 23, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
Yet more than 33,000 college students identified themselves as homeless on FAFSA forms in the 2010–2011 academic year — and that just counts those who filled out scholarship applications.
Still, complaints about homeless people and panhandlers are fairly common at colleges and universities across the country.
A student interviewed by Penn’s The Daily Pennsylvanian, commented, “The fact that there are panhandlers here certainly decreases the Penn experience.”
An editorial in the University of Delaware paper argued that local police should force homeless people to occupy shelters at night: “Newark Public Safety needs to ensure the utmost safety of its students, and an area of concern includes the crowds of homeless people on Main Street.”
Students certainly have a right to be safe, and many municipalities have supported that right by outlawing “aggressive panhandling.”
In Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University, panhandlers may not block your path, block the entrance to a building, use abusive language or follow you if you decline to give money.
But the mere fact that someone is sleeping outside or even asking you for money does not constitute a threat to your safety. You may not like to confront the reality of poverty as you walk down the street to class, but people, at least as far as several courts have ruled, have a free speech right to beg.
In September, for example, Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale A. Reinholtsen struck down a ban on non-aggressive panhandling in Arcata, California, (home of Humboldt State). He wrote, “Arcata may not restrict solicitation merely because it makes people uncomfortable. To put it simply, speech rights prevail in a public forum (e.g., public parks, streets, etc.) in the absence of unique circumstances.”
So, what should students do about panhandling and homelessness? Here are some programs that students across the country have developed to address the problem:
Many colleges and universities participate in National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week each November. Popular activities include working at soup kitchens and creating “box cities” to show what it’s like to live on the street.
Students at UCLA created Swipes for the Homeless, now a worldwide campaign that allows people to donate their unused dining points to feed the homeless.
As part of a homelessness awareness week at Santa Clara University, students are discussing ways to address the root causes of homelessness.
To take part in that conversation, visit The Big Q, the university’s online dialog about the everyday ethical dilemmas facing college students. The best student comment wins a $100 Amazon gift certificate.
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