When you pass by homeless people around campus, how do you react? Do you drop a coin in their jingling cans? Do you hug your backpack a little closer? Do you offer a sympathetic smile?
While the University Police Department encourages students to exercise caution around the homeless, many students remain unsure about how to interact with the homeless population on campus, who are among the more than 6,500 people living on the streets of D.C.
“People tend to squirm when they see an outstretched cup and happen to get a text message at that moment or stare at their shoes,” said sophomore Izzy Parilis, a member of the community service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega.
UPD acknowledges that homeless people are a part of our community, but adds that they can be a threat to student safety.
“Homeless people have a right to be on the street. They can go anywhere they want, just like anybody else,” University Police Chief Kevin Hay said.
But those rights, Hay said, have a limit. Homeless people who repeatedly sleep on GW property can be barred from campus or even arrested for trespassing.
Profiles on the homeless around GW Campus
“If you have someone who was spending the night in a doorway, you go up and you say to them, you cannot sleep here,” Hay said. “Most of the time we’re just going to ask them to move on.”
Hay added that students should approach homeless people around campus with an air of caution.
“I would tell students that the majority of homeless people are harmless and they’re not going to bother them,” he said.
Nonetheless, UPD makes student safety the utmost priority.
“Would I be on my guard around a homeless person?” Chief Hay said. “Probably, yeah.”
Despite these warnings of caution, some students have said they have positive interactions with homeless people.
Adrian Dahl, a sophomore who lives in Fulbright, said he will often talk history with a man who lives near the hall.
“There’s one guy in particular who[m] I see all the time. He comes up to us and asks who our favorite president is,” Dahl said. “We had a great conversation about LBJ and how his Great Society program was so good for homeless people. I’ve asked him a couple of times who his favorite president is, and his answer is always Ulysses S. Grant.”
But not all students interact as amiably with homeless people they encounter.
“Unfortunately, many students do not take the time to acknowledge this presence on campus and to understand the underlying forces that contribute to homelessness,” said Hillary Moskow, coordinator for the GW community service program the Neighbors Project.
“As a community we need to work on realizing that homeless people are as much a part of Foggy Bottom as we are,” Parilis said. “We need to show them a little respect and help them out.”
Many homeless people cite loneliness and lack of respect as the hardest part of living on the streets, which often trumps their lack of food and shelter.
“A very personal issue of homelessness is dignity,” said Rory Gerber, a liaison for GW’s chapter of Amnesty International. “The best thing that any person can do is to look the person in the eye. It recognizes their dignity.”
“Imagine if no one spoke to you for a week. Talking to yourself might start to seem like not that bad of an idea,” said Julius Brown, a 53-year-old homeless man who shared his life story with students at Tent City, a homelessness awareness event hosted by the GW chapter of Amnesty International Oct. 21.
So how does Brown suggest students and homeless people coexist?
“Just acknowledge that they are human beings,” Brown added. “A lot of homeless people don’t have any support, and they are very lonely. You don’t have to give them all your money, just say hi.”