Editor’s note: The author composed this piece in mid-January, on one of the coldest days of the month.
With the wind chill, it’s about 15 degrees outside this morning. This week is shaping up to be the coldest DC has seen in a long time; while all that means for me is an unpleasant wait for the bus, for others it’s a very real threat. The man who sits on the corner of 16th and K every morning, wishing the speed-walking commuters a nice day, wasn’t there when I walked by and I am really hoping it’s because he’s still at a shelter, or at least some place warm.
Like most people attending law school, I come from a place of relative privilege. I might not be part of the one percent (and the size of my student loans might terrify me), but I don’t have the first idea what it’s like to be homeless or without a safety net. So sometimes I feel like the worst kind of elitist – the well-intentioned kind who speaks for people whose experiences they will never truly know. As POOR Magazine’s cofounder Lisa Gray-Garcia pointed out, “…a privileged person’s distant, disconnected view of someone else’s daily struggle” is hardly a legitimate perspective of what it’s actually like to be homeless. And yet, I know that the work we do here at the Law Center is truly important on a societal level. We don’t see the people living on our street corners or park benches – they are human beings who have become part of our landscape. Call it compassion fatigue or willful ignorance, but the dialogue happening about homelessness today is too often about personal choice, laziness, a feeling of entitlement. As if not freezing to death was such a ridiculous thing to be entitled to.
In last week’s inaugural address, President Obama said, “A great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.” Too often, the vulnerable are also the most marginalized among us, those whose political voice has been silenced, who already experience daily brutality at the hands of the powerful. While I can’t do anything about the fact that I was born with this privilege, I can use it to do something meaningful. Working at the Law Center lets me use it to make a little more space for those folks without a voice to be heard, and to push those in power to follow through on President Obama’s words.
-KT Crossman, Fellow, Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, Northeastern University School of Law