FLAGSTAFF, AZ (3 TV/CBS 5) - A picture of several Northern Arizona University students dressed as homeless people is drawing condemnation online and from the homeless advocacy community.
As of Friday afternoon, a tweet with screenshots of a now-deleted Instagram post had around 9,000 retweets and 22,000 likes.
In the tweet, user @groovyk8 wrote: “This girl dressed up as a struggling & homeless IMMIGRANT MOTHER for a HALLOWEEN COSTUME. And her friends went as various other homeless people. All the comments are people thinking this is so funny and clever. What the actual [expletive], @NAU come get your students.”
One of the pictures shows other students holding signs reading, “Veteran, have prostate cancer, God bless,” and “16 & pregnant will work 4 food.”
"You know, it's sad that they take homeless to be a joke," said Rudy Soliz, a formerly-homeless person who now helps homeless seniors at Phoenix's Justa Center. "I was homeless for five years. My dignity was gone. My self-respect was gone. You feel like you want to break away from the world. You feel invisible to everybody."
NAU’s President Rita Cheng responded in a statement:
“Northern Arizona University values diversity and inclusion,” Cheng wrote. “A recent Halloween post by NAU students has been taken seriously. The Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Engagement and Inclusive Excellence met with the students yesterday. The students recognized the seriousness of their actions and apologized. NAU values and supports free speech. However, speech that is demeaning to others does not represent our values.”
Arizona’s Family was unable to reach any of the individuals in the picture for comment.
Meanwhile, some hope that this can be a teachable moment.
"They'd be welcome here at Justa Center any time and we wouldn't make them feel bad about what they did," said Justa Center director Wendy Johnson. "We would want them to just meet some real live homeless people that are like their grandmas and grandpas, and wonder why these things happen and how they can be part of the solution."