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Human Rights Fellow Burke: Fighting Homelessness Beyond the Hurricane



Homelessness is about more than just housing. According to Sean Burke, a Robina Foundation Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow, the category of homelessness is a catch-all for where people end up when all things fall apart. When someone loses their connection to family and community, when they’ve been denied an adequate standard of living, when cities fail to educate their people, and when social security fails to fill the gaps; people end up on the streets. Sean is familiar with the plight of the homeless. From June until August, Sean worked in New Orleans dividing his time between Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and Unity of Greater New Orleans. In both settings he became deeply involved in homelessness issues, offering direct legal services to underrepresented individuals and advocating on behalf of homeless populations.  


While Sean’s job was new, he personally was no stranger to issues of inequality. In college, he studied social justice and led trips to homeless shelters. During the winter break of his first year at the University of Minnesota law school, he volunteered with the Student Hurricane Network, an organization of Law Students focused on rebuilding the Gulf region after the destruction of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This summer, Sean witnessed and experienced a lot, but he cites two instances as warranting special reflection.


On a midweek evening, just after work, Sean received a phone call from a colleague at Unity of Greater New Orleans. The colleague directed Sean to a dilapidated neighborhood where New Orleans police were forcibly closing a budget hotel. Reports of a shooting had provided a pretext for the city to close the building and evict short-term renters. To Sean, this undertaking exemplified the city’s inability to address the structural issues that perpetuated the homelessness problem. The evicted renters could not be absorbed by New Orleans’ homeless shelters. This “whack-a-mole” solution exacerbated the numbers of individuals living on the street and succeeded only in squeezing a crime problem into a different problem that would pop-up somewhere else.  


In a separate instance, Sean befriended a regular client of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services named Nate.  As they built a rapport, Sean assisted Nate in resolving identification and petty citation problems.  Though Nate was fiercely independent, Sean found him a shelter that would accommodate his desire for autonomy. When it seemed that assistance money had been lined up and that stability was within grasp, Sean was confronted with the news that Nate had become aggravated, had lashed out, and had disappeared. The progress Sean and Nate had worked to establish disappeared as well. Even now, Sean doesn’t know what happened to Nate, and his story hasn’t come to a happy ending. But Sean finds the incident worthy of reflection because in confronting issues of homelessness, Sean recognizes that problems are often vast and multifaceted, and Sean expects that his best efforts may often fail to remedy the systems many ailments. Nevertheless, Sean is committed to persevering. He recognizes that we must if we are to see improvement for those like Nate, who are living on the street.


Sean is interested in continuing his efforts to improve New Orleans, and he described two specific ways that he intends to do so, beginning with the promotion of homeless courts. Homeless courts are a diversionary system that seeks to decriminalize homelessness, stop the revolving door between prisons and the streets, and confront the underlying causes of the homeless condition. Additionally, Sean hopes to combat Gulf Coast fatigue syndrome. Sean describes Gulf Coast fatigue as the feeling in Washington and among donors that too many resources have already been directed to the Gulf Coast region. Sean recognizes that a real and persistent need continues to exist in New Orleans and points to his experience as evidence that a lot of hard work remains to be done.



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