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Life on Ring Road Series: A Reluctant Safe Haven for the Occasional Homeless

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Photo Courtesy By Yini Chen

By Justice Healy

In the midst of students and professors hustling to class through Ring Road and Aldrich Park, homeless people are occasionally  found sitting at a computer or sleeping in the university libraries, trying not to draw attention to themselves.
One homeless woman in particular has been roaming Ring Road and sitting on the concrete benches near Langson Library and Aldrich Hall. Her gray hair is long with thinning ends and her tan skin hints at a body weathered by the outdoors. Baggy clothes hang from her body and a backpack slings over one shoulder as she avoids eye contact with people roaming the campus. Her presence prompts the question of whether UCI should take a more humane approach to dealing with its homeless people.

“This is bullshit.”

The first time I encountered this woman was during a bright fall day on Ring Road near the Student Center. The energy on campus was high that first week of fall quarter and it was difficult not to notice her against the backdrop of booths displaying colorful posters for student clubs. A police officer told the woman that she needed to leave the campus for reasons I’m not sure of.
“This is bullshit,” she argued, gathering her belongings from a curb. The officer stood with his hands on his waist and held firmly and calmly to his position. The woman muttered something about being a professor at school, her words slewing into frustrated incomprehensible tangents, indicating she was either purposefully lying or suffering from some type of mental illness.

She left, and her expulsion from the campus prompted the question of whether or not it’s ethical to remove someone from a public space based on their socio-economic status. One can’t help but notice on a humanistic level the discrepancy between the homeless woman’s poverty and the campus’s wealth. This wealth can be seen in UCI’s physicality. Currently, the school is undergoing a $1.1 billion construction campaign, and every few months a new modern building pops up on the campus.
In terms of legality, the California Law Review published an article “The University and the Public: The Right of Access by Non-students to University Property.” Here, the law says that one can be assigned a misdemeanor for “refusing to obey the authorized request to leave the campus. The enabling condition for such a request, however, is not the individual’s general mens rea or his specific intent to disrupt, but rather that it ‘reasonably appears’ to the officer that the person is committing, or has entered for the purpose of committing, an act likely to interfere with the peaceful conduct of campus activities.”
Regardless, the homeless woman’s absence was only temporary, and while her appearances on campus seemed to spell a certain transience, they never seemed to halt completely. In a city where  cops pick up homeless people and dump them off in neighboring cities like stray dogs, UCI was her home. She somehow consistently managed to avoid being deported from the city like an illegal immigrant in a foreign country.

Such an aversive attitude towards the few homeless people that appear on UCI’s campus is not new. In 2011, the New University published an opinion article, “Keep Our Campus Free of the Homeless,” in which the writer says that he had recently noticed a “strange rise in the number of homeless people plaguing our campus.” The numbers? He continues, saying that in the span of one month he’d witnessed “at least two” homeless people on campus, making his concluding call for students to report them to university officials upon spotting them seem nearly laughable.

“Thank you.”

The next time I encountered the woman was a few weeks later sitting with one leg crossed over the other on a concrete bench outside of Aldrich Hall. Tentatively, I approached her and offered her some food I had. She looked up, her expression wary and her body language closed off. Realizing my friendly intentions, she accepted and shamelessly said thank you. I didn’t linger and continued walking.
I didn’t see her for several weeks after that and I wondered if she’d left the campus for good.

“I just need to check some emails.”

I was on campus around midnight when the grass and trees in Aldrich Park radiated a misty dew that covered everything. I walked into one of the engineering buildings and encountered the same woman — wearing the same clothes as usual. She asked if I could let her into one of the computer labs that was locked after hours and that only engineering students could get into.
“I just need to check some emails,” she explained.
Her ragged baggy clothes made me wonder what type of emails she could possibly be needing to check. Wanting to help, I tried to see if any of the computer rooms in the engineering building were open. As I helped her, she asked me how school was going, making polite conversation and empathizing with me when I told her that I had some papers due soon. She seemed to know how the quarter system worked and it indicated to me that she had been around for a long time.
I finally got around to asking her what she was doing at UCI.
“Oh, my daughter goes here,” she said after a slight trip over her words, misaligning with her previous claim to the cop that she was a professor. None of the computer lab doors were unlocked and we parted ways.
That was the last interaction I had with the woman.  Every few months, I see her in passing. I don’t approach her, but always feel a curious excitement upon recognizing her. I can’t help but feel that her presence belongs at UCI just as much as any of the students or faculty on campus. She’s been here throughout the five years I’ve been here — and will probably be here when I’m gone.