Why go to law school when I can spend my nights in abandoned buildings in New Orleans?

Abandoned Building Outreach

I recently got word that University of Michigan law school won’t let me defer law school again. I was accepted 16 months ago, and a few months later asked for and received a one-year deferral . But now my request for a second one-year deferral has been shot down. So if I want to go to law school later on, I’ll have to start the application process all over again.

The truth is, I’m having too great a time doing what I do right now, searching for and rescuing people squatting in abandoned buildings in New Orleans, to stop and go to law school. Really it’s equal parts fun and frustration, but either way the abandoned buildings outreach is intense and stimulating in a way I can’t imagine law school or even practicing law would be. I think this is really about the people I meet. I can’t imagine myself having legal clients as interesting as these abandoned building dwellers and squatters. I meet people who’ve been living in these conditions often for two years or more and many demonstrate a resilience that astounds me. How someone can live day to day in the moldy, trash strewn and partially destroyed shell of an abandoned hospital and still get up daily to go work temp services and day labor jobs is beyond me (I have enough trouble working a steady fulltime job while sleeping in my air-conditioned apartment and getting up in the morning – I was late again today).

Last night I got a hug from a schizophrenic woman with a history of being raped on the streets when I told her I had gotten word that morning that she’ll be moving into housing within the next week; she proceeded to hug three others and then dance with my outreach partner Mike. I guess it’s that I’m getting to see the human experience at its high and low points in extremes most people never get to witness… or maybe it is that they choose not to. I think there is value in this in terms of learning about people that I cannot expect to get by returning to an academic setting, and I can’t imagine enjoying life without seeing it regularly. The difference and diversity of the people I meet keeps my mind working. I suppose all of that is what I call the fun of the job even though it is not always fun. Perhaps I should say it is the positive or what I desire about it – getting to see that cross section of society that we generally look over and past.

Then there is the frustration. Recently I ran into a man that I thought was housed 7 months ago – turns out he was on the cusp of accessing the housing program but somehow the intake process was not completed. Neither the program he failed to access (or rather, the program that failed to house him) nor did he ever inform me that the placement did not happen. He is back to living in an abandoned auto mechanic’s garage (with six others) despite being chronically homeless and having a diagnosis of AIDS. So the frustration is that I know literally hundreds of badly disabled and medically ill people living on the streets and in abandoned buildings of New Orleans, and even when I think the referral process is complete housing often falls through. Not to mention the thirty people I saw sleeping outside of an emergency shelter last night due to it being full – and some argue that there is plenty of affordable housing in New Orleans.
If the fun of this job is the people I get to meet (and a wide array of characters and personalities they are), then the frustration is the context in which I do it. Four years following Katrina, rents are still too high in New Orleans, thousands of homes and buildings remain in ruins, wages and social security payments are still too low for working people and those on disability to afford housing, and sources of recovery aid are being cutoff despite an overwhelming lack of recovery. In short, this is a time and place where someone with my background, skills and personality are needed. I can’t go to law school for three years and then come back to this and expect to have the opportunity to pick up where I leave off. The time to do this is now, and law schools will still be around when I’m 30 or 35.

In retrospect it is funny to think about how a simple hour long meeting can change a life. I remember being a weekend worker for the UNITY Welcome Home outreach team. I was invited to lunch by Martha Kegel, our Executive Director, and asked to take on more responsibility – to launch a new program finding and housing the most severely disabled homeless people in town.  It took me a long time (over a month) to decide to take on that challenge. Three years later, I’m still here, backing out of law school and working on an outreach team of only 8 people tasked with housing 11,500 homeless New Orleanians scattered throughout a city with tens of thousands of places to hide. Again, I can’t believe they’re doing anything like this in law school.
I’ll go to law school when I finally decide I can meet as interesting a set of clients and serve in an area of as great a need as I do now. I decided I can’t go until I know I’m done with what I can do here. I don’t want to look back in twenty years and wonder who I would have met (and hopefully helped) among the homeless and the squatters if only I’d stayed a few more years.

Once I came to this conclusion, the only other reason to go to law school this year, given that the request for deferral was denied, was the fact that the applications process is a bitch. So, once I decide whether I’m up for dealing with applications this year, I’ll decide where and if I want to apply.

–Shamus Rohn, Director of No One Suffers Alone Abandoned Building Project

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