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The Clinic as a transformative experience

Clinical education was not part of my LL.B., and opportunities to bridge the chasm between legal scholarship and real-life issues permeated and affected by legal infrastructure were scarce, leaving me, an aspiring lawyer, feeling unmoored at times. Therefore, upon arriving in Nijmegen to pursue a Master’s in Human Rights & Migration, one of the few things I knew for certain was this: I wanted to be part of the Law Clinic. Now that my journey as a clinician has run its course, I can definitely say it was the right call and has been a transformative experience.

Under the guidance of Dr. Eva Rieter and alongside my fellow students (now friends), Johanna, Vaibhav, Riddhi, and Joe, I had the opportunity to work on the project commissioned by Stichting Straatconsulaat. Our goal was to research the international (UN) and regional human rights framework that may help challenge rules and legislation (and application thereof) that stigmatize and criminalize people experiencing homelessness and those at risk of homelessness. After careful deliberation, we decided to approach the project from the angle of discrimination law, since issues of stigmatization, legislative stereotyping and criminalization are commonly addressed via non-discrimination clauses of the human rights corpus.

In working on this project, we had occasion to reflect on our own positionality as researchers and the potential impact of our output in the real world. One thing in particular that we have been cautious to avoid is reinforcing the very attitudes that result in stigmatizing and criminalizing people experiencing homelessness and those at risk of homelessness. For instance, analysis of the ECHR framework has shown that the group vulnerability doctrine developed by the European Court of Human Rights in its case-law may be helpful in challenging rules that de facto stigmatize homelessness. At the same time, we emphasized that practical utility of invoking group vulnerability notwithstanding, when applied to homelessness, the group-based rhetoric runs the risk of being essentialist and stereotyping as it reduces the identity of the individual to a single characteristic, to the effect that it reinforces stereotypical images of the relevant group. Learning to navigate this and other ethical grey areas and being wary of our positionality in research on homelessness and stigma has induced us to actively embrace the responsibilities that are part and parcel of impactful projects.

In light of the very pressing nature of the Straatconsulaat project it was of paramount importance to us that it not only contributes to academic discourse but also resonates with the broader community, fostering positive change. As put by my colleague Riddhi, ‘engaging deeply with the complex issue of homelessness, stigmatization, and criminalization allowed us to apply our legal expertise to real-world challenges, fostering a profound understanding of the societal and legal barriers faced by marginalized communities.’ In this vein, the trip to the Straatconsulaat office in The Hague that Johanna, Riddhi and I took at the end of May to present the outcome of our project was especially insightful. Not only did we have the chance to present our work to Straatconsulaat, but talk with a range of advocates, social workers and other stakeholders working with various dimensions of homelessness. These conversations enabled us to see the bigger picture, i.e., complex real-life context, that sometimes gets overlooked in legal research, and highlighted just how crucial it is to acknowledge blind spots that strictly legal research cannot always address.

Overall, my journey within the Clinic has been a stimulating experience, shaping my understanding of academic citizenship and reinforcing my commitment to making a positive

impact beyond the classroom. This sentiment is echoed by Vaibhav, who, reflecting on being a clinician, said that it was a pivotal period in his academic and professional development, reinforcing his commitment to advocacy and justice.

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