HEGDE: The hidden homeless

Homeless people in Charlottesville are too often dehumanized

One night last semester stands out clearly in my mind. It was 9 p.m., and my lab group walked out of Clark with a giddy feeling of accomplishment, having turned in our final lab reports (for once, well ahead of the deadline).

As we walked over the bridge, we saw a man on the ground. He had fallen on the sidewalk and lay as still as the street around him. Two girls stood over him with their mouths open and phones out. Next to me, my friend Briar took a sharp breath. “What happened? Have you called 911?” One of the girls hesitated, then shook her head. She handed me her phone. Briar bent down and told the man that she was a lifeguard, that everything would be okay. She put her hand on his wrist to check for a pulse.

The man did not move or open his eyes. His face was pressed into the concrete, so that I could not make out any of his features. He was weighed down by an enormous coat. He must be dead, I thought.

On the phone, the police dispatcher asked where we had found the body. “On McCormick, in front of the Engineering building,” I said. The EMTs were on their way, I was told. By this time, more students had gathered around to see what was happening.

After a few minutes, a police car drove towards us. A young male officer stepped out. We told him what happened while he listened, calm and unconcerned. He looked at the man on the ground, then up at us. He asked if we had touched the man’s body. Briar nodded, explaining
that she was checking for a pulse. The officer looked at her and told her, firmly, that she
should wash her hands.

We were confused by his reaction. How often do people collapse unconscious in the middle of campus on a Wednesday night? The officer shrugged and told us he’d dealt with the man before. He lifted his hand to his mouth, as if tipping a flask inside. He said once more that we would definitely want to wash our hands. Nothing more was said. A few more officers arrived, but nobody went near the body.

The ambulance had yet to come, but the situation seemed handled now that the police were there. And anyway, there were meetings to attend, work to complete, a full dinner to eat in a
warm home. We walked away.

The scene seemed disturbingly familiar. The officers’ disinterested attitude was quickly transferred to us. As he explained that the man was likely passed out drunk, I watched my classmates’ faces as their sympathy faded into apathy, even annoyance that the man had done something so stupid to himself. The officer’s repeated instruction for us to wash our hands made it seem as if he regarded the body on the ground as less-than-human. Indeed, we never did find out if the man had survived the night, or the month.

As a student at the University, it is rare to be so closely confronted by Charlottesville’s homeless population. Most of the city’s 200 homeless individuals steer clear of grounds and student-populated areas, with good reason. Last June, I watched a man being put in handcuffs for sitting on the curb on Wertland Street for less than an hour.

In the past few years, more steps have been taken by City Council to hide or criminalize the poor. In 2012, at the behest of downtown business owners who complained of loiterers, five benches were removed from the Downtown Mall. Last year, the North Downtown Neighborhood Association released a 36-page report on the Mall which concludes that “groups of idlers” have “seriously deteriorated” the quality of public life at a “important and vibrant public meeting place.”

According to the report, 48 percent of survey respondents said they felt “unsafe and uncomfortable” on the Mall, with 27 percent saying the homeless and panhandling kept them
away. The report recommends ordinances that would prevent sitting down or lying down within 10 feet of buildings, abusive language, and displaying handmade signs.

Reading the report, I can’t help but think of what Robert F. Kennedy told an audience in 1967, the last time the income gap was as wide as it is today: “To be an American means to have been an outcast and a stranger, to have come from the exiles’ country, and to know that he who denies the outcast and the stranger still amongst us, he also denies America.”

Homelessness is a tragic problem. It cannot be resolved by criminalizing or dehumanizing those who already struggle each day to get by. Perhaps the country is not yet able to raise the
minimum wage or institute truly effective social programs to alleviate poverty, but at least we can stop the institutional harassment and dehumanizing the poor. One thing I know for sure is that a girl should not be told to wash her hands for trying to help a man up when he has fallen.

Shefali Hegde is a fourth-year College student.

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