The Gould School of Law’s Experiential Learning announced last semester that it will offer a brand new legal externship class for students this semester, helping students develop a battery of skills to assess and combat factors leading to homelessness in the city community.
The externships are designed to help students jump into complex issues and begin to untangle the knots that keep community members mired in debt, lost in immigration complications and stranded on Los Angeles streets. Students will develop practices for interviewing those experiencing homelessness by performing legal assessments, identifying structural problems that lead to housing insecurity and collaborating with social workers. These factors promise to set the externship program up for success, yet there is still much about the class that remains in question.
While the homeless advocacy externship promises to create an atmosphere for community outreach and collaboration, there is little information about the class on Gould’s Office of Experiential Learning webpage, and externship opportunities are only available to students who have completed their first year of studies in law at USC. Students who are interested in externships are directed to email the office with inquiries, which may potentially prevent students from applying if they think this experience will discourage them from acquiring more glamorous positions, like externships with BBC Studios America and Marvel later in their academic careers.
Students must also consider whether participating in the program will actually change anything about how lawmakers and security professionals treat homeless members of the L.A. community, since the course lasts only one semester. Externs will be working against a system that has been in place for decades and will work on a case-by-case basis to determine which policies need to be changed to improve at-risk peoples’ quality of life. Students may end up entering their experiential learning course bright-eyed and leaving jaded, disappointed that their hard work may lead nowhere after they have presented their findings and left their work for further review.
This course also neglects to address other ways that passionate students can get involved with homelessness advocacy on campus. Trojans are often shocked by the housing insecurity they see on the streets surrounding the University Park and Health Science campuses, yet we are eventually taught to keep our heads down when passing homeless individuals on the street. When students are taught to use USC’s Lyft Safe Ride Program to get to off-campus destinations, protect their safety and avoid certain areas after dark, they are taught to simultaneously regard the surroundings as dangerous.
It is easy to let the darkness swallow those huddled out in the cold as passers by walk away. A billboard near Union Station reminding commuters that “homelessness kills” is despairingly easy to ignore after it becomes part of one’s daily commute. It is easy to become immune to images of human suffering while living in L.A.
Alternatively, students can work against this numbing acceptance of homelessness by joining a variety of courses and organizations on campus. Joint Educational Project offers opportunities such as volunteering with Chrysalis, an organization that helps low-income community members build resumes and prepare for job interviews. Midnight Mission offers meal services, counseling, job training and work placement for hundreds of individuals living near Skid Row.
Volunteering with Midnight Mission is a transformative experience. Student volunteers are kept busy sorting cans, organizing to-go bags and serving meals while visitors fill up their trays with warm, healthy food. Outside the streets are thick with tents, but indoors, the charity works to form connections between individuals facing completely different realities.
Unless the Gould externship includes hands-on volunteer work in Skid Row soup kitchens like Midnight Mission, students will miss much of the spirit that make these organizations’ fight against homelessness possible.
Additionally, students can volunteer to serve in clubs, like Share a Meal, which works to combat food insecurity in the L.A. community. The USC Homelessness Initiative offers many more opportunities for students to fight back against homelessness, and it serves as a comprehensive resource for finding out how you can get involved in your community right now.
While the new Gould experiential learning course promises to help law students develop practical skills and connect with policy-making L.A. offices, there is a wealth of under-utilized opportunities that are more relevant to the rest of the student body here at USC. Everyone can contribute their skills as we work to solve the homelessness crisis in L.A., whether that comes through the new Gould externship or volunteering to serve breakfast with strangers at USC Friends & Neighbors Day events.
These opportunities serve to treat the symptoms of homelessness, as they help volunteers get to know individuals and eventually help charitable organizations solve the issue on a case-by-case basis. This partnership is necessary in trying to figure out why Angelenos became homeless in the first place.
The Gould School just added another weapon against inequality to the Trojan Family’s toolbox. It is ultimately the job of students to take a chance and wield whichever opportunity fits best.