Walking down Franklin Street in mid-August feels like coming home. After summer break, visiting favorite restaurants and reminiscing about rushing Franklin fosters a sense of belonging in Chapel Hill. This historic street is the border between campus and the greater community. As we all enjoy this special town, we should be cognizant of the way we treat and interact with all of our community members.
During the first few weeks of school, people experiencing homelessness are quite visible on Franklin Street. We should not embrace policies of ignoring people as if they are invisible. We should not project assumptions about their mental health or their substance abuse. We should not make remarks about their clothes or general presentation or treat them like second-class citizens.
By the numbers, Orange County has approximately 150 residents experiencing . This is decided by a “point-in-time” count, wherein people canvas the county and simply count the number of people who say that they are homeless. As such, this is a gross underestimation of the homeless population, as many people have found places that are not visible from roads or not easily accessible for a person walking around the county counting bodies.
The simple solution to homelessness is housing, specifically more affordable housing. In Orange County, only 1,700 out of 56,000 housing units are considered affordable — paying rent less than 30 percent of your income — for families living below 80 percent of the area median income, which is about $58,640. In Orange County, 40 percent of the demand for rental properties is due to student competition according to one analysis from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. UNC students are directly contributing to the causes of homelessness in the community. As election day approaches, we should support candidates who are aware of the affordable housing plight and are inclined to take action.
In the meantime, let’s be nicer to people experiencing homelessness. These members of our community are disproportionately impacted by instances of trauma. Homelessness is finally being recognized as a traumatic experience in and of itself, an important step toward directing public funding and support to this community. As a simple first step toward showing empathy, imagine that the person asking for money was your parent or your sibling. How would you want them to be treated?