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Column: Dear UNC students, check your privilege when it comes to the unhoused

Franklin St crosswalk
A pair of pedestrians wait to cross the street on the intersection between Franklin Street and Columbia Street on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019.

Last semester, after a particularly rough final exam, I stormed out of Phillips Hall and took off to Franklin Street in need of a snack. I purchased a family-sized bag of Cape Cod potato chips and perched myself on a bench to sit and indulge.

After a few minutes, a woman sat down next to me and asked for some chips. I felt slightly put off, but seeing as I had already had my fair share, I offered her the rest of the bag. She asked me about my day; I told her about my exam and after a few more minutes of talking, she mentioned to me that she was experiencing homelessness. We chatted a bit more and went on about our days.

UNC's campus has always been special to me because it's well integrated with the town of Chapel Hill. It sits directly next to Franklin Street, allowing students to walk the line between isolated college campus resident and town community member.

It’s for this reason that I find it especially upsetting to hear the way students discuss unhoused people on Franklin Street. I’ve long thought that Chapel Hill students are especially entitled, so this realization isn't necessarily surprising, but it’s disheartening nonetheless.

In my time on this campus, I’ve heard countless students degrade the unhoused population in Chapel Hill, relegating them to a subclass of people. I remember last year, a former columnist at The Daily Tar Heel pitched a story about how people experiencing homelessness were becoming a nuisance on Franklin Street, as if they were no different than a pest problem that needed to be taken care of. I’ve heard students complain that they’re always being bothered by an unhoused person asking for money, as if a simple request from a person in need has some profoundly devastating effect on their day.

This may be surprising to some of the students here, but unhoused people are human beings too. Just because they don’t currently have a parent paying their $1,500-per-month Union Chapel Hill rent doesn’t make them any less important than you. They have every right to occupy the same spaces in Chapel Hill.

On top of that, students should consider that the presence of this University in Chapel Hill massively contributes to an increase in housing prices, making it even more difficult for the unhoused population to find places to live.

It's disturbing to hear our student population consistently complain about people who are struggling in a failing economy. Posting that an unhoused person on Franklin Street is some disturbance to your night out as you try to get into a bar with your fake ID is disgusting and beyond privileged.

I’ve heard people say that they are constantly being harassed by unhoused people in Chapel Hill. I completely understand and agree that harassment is something that should be called out and discussed, but the notion that this is something solely done by one group is misguided and ignorant. Using harassment as a way to condemn an entire group of people for the actions of a few is a diminishing generalization and it is a way to justify privileged and inhumane behavior under the guise of fear. 

That simple conversation with a woman about our favorite chip flavors completely changed the trajectory of my day. At UNC, we have the unique ability to interact directly with the community outside of our campus bubble. Do not take this for granted and, more importantly, don’t write off a group of people in need.

I’ve seen the UNC community come together in times of need for each other. I would hope that if you’re ever in a place of need, your community would come together for you, not brandish you as some nuisance and do everything in its power to ignore you.

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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