In city on the Green, no simple answers

Bill Burliegh strokes a 9-week-old puppy named Rocky belonging to a friend he calls Miss Joe. Burliegh occasionally looks after Rocky, because he and Miss Joe consider each other family — a family who now happens to live on the New Haven Green.

Burliegh and Miss Joe are just two of almost 100 residents who have been living in a tent city on the Green for the past four weeks. Despite the efforts of Yale students and the homeless themselves, there has been no sign of a long term solution to the housing crunch in New Haven shelters. While tent city residents and volunteers weigh housing options, the weather is getting colder and many still have not secured shelter for the month of October.

Respect Line, a Yale organization comprised of Yale students and the homeless, has been working since the Sept. 11 closing of the New Haven overflow shelter to help residents of the tent city remain housed and fed. Volunteers help coordinate donations and help ensure that the impromptu community runs smoothly.

But sometimes, the volunteers just serve as friendly faces.

“Some people keep to themselves,” Respect Line volunteer Daniel Thomas ’06 said in an e-mail. “Others are just looking for an ear to listen. I just [heard] one of the residents [of the tent city] tell his life story and, other than the occasional ‘Yeah’ or ‘Wow,’ I was silent.”

Thomas sees another reason why the tent city is a unique environment.

“This is a group of individuals that do not normally interact with each other on this intimate of a level,” he said.

Cathy de la Aguilera ’04, another Respect Line volunteer, said she agreed with Thomas, but noted that the lack of communication can be frustrating.

“Some people just don’t get involved,” she said. “[It is] a challenge to build a community where there are so many different types of people.”

This challenge is elucidated as one homeless man yells to a passing Yale student.

“All of you who are born with silver spoons in your mouths and with your college educations don’t know what it means to suffer,” he says. “You make me sick.”

Divisions within the front

Despite some opposition, de la Aguilera said she finds her work rewarding.

“It’s amazing to see a lot of homeless people becoming leaders, when they’ve never been able to voice their opinions before,” she said.

At Respect Line general meetings in Dwight Hall on Sunday nights, homeless people and others who are concerned about the homeless situation in New Haven can meet to discuss possible solutions to the problem.

During Respect Line’s most recent meeting, participants spoke vehemently about New Haven’s new 90-day length of stay policy, which forces homeless people to leave a shelter after 90 days. After two hours of discussion, they decided to draft an alternate proposal, the contents of which would be discussed at the next meeting.

But David, a resident of the tent city who prefers not to give his last name, is not as optimistic as these Respect Line participants. He said he has been to these meetings before and calls them “crap.”

“It’s a front,” he said. “Nothing’s getting done — it’s just so that Yale students can feel like they’re doing something.”

De la Aguilera contended that Respect Line has met with opposition from the city. She said Executive Assistant to the Mayor Julio Gonzalez ’99 has refused to meet with the group.

“I wish the city would be more receptive,” De la Aguilera said.

Diana Cieslak ’04, co-coordinator of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, said in order to solve this problem, New Haven will need the cooperation of other cities.

“This is a regional problem that needs a regional solution,” Cieslak said. “Other cities really need to step up.”

In David’s opinion, the real problem is overcrowding. David and his friend Miami, another resident of the tent city, said that overcrowding often plagues the Green.

“Overcrowding causes the filthy bathrooms and pile-ups of garbage make us look bad,” Miami said.

Not just New Haven’s problem

With about 30 percent of the homeless in New Haven coming from outside the city, the problem of overcrowding is difficult to resolve.

“We’re essentially at our limit,” Ward 10 Alderman Ed Mattison said. “We cannot be the house of lost causes for the state.”

The $1.4 million that New Haven spends on its homeless problem is more than all the other cities in Connecticut spend combined, but it still cannot meet the demand, Mattison said.

David said he would like to see outsiders put on buses and sent back to where they came from.

“People from New Haven should come first. People who aren’t from around here should come secondary,” David said.

Some advocates for the homeless see yet another problem — the need for rehabilitation.

Wesley Thorpe, executive director of the Immanuel Baptist shelter, said while many of the people who stay in his shelter do truly need help, many others stay for years without making much of an effort to change their situation.

“A lot of people could do a little better if they were forced to,” Thorpe said.

Burliegh, who gets $560 a month from the government, had a different perspective.

“The [$560 government subsidy] cannot possibly be enough to find housing for my wife and me,” he said. “People need adequate housing that they can afford.”

Alison Cunningham, spokeswoman for New Haven’s Columbus House shelter, said that a variety of things are needed — including treatment programs, more transitional housing and government subsidies for rent at fair market prices.

“There’s not one simple solution to the problem,” Cunningham said. “The number of services that [New Haven] offers just don’t meet the demand.”

Thorpe said that drugs are also a major problem. He said the facility’s on-site job development program is doing very well and “if people get cleaned up they can get jobs.”

But Elizabeth Walker, a New Haven resident who is on the verge of homelessness, said there is a more fundamental problem.

“People need to be more understanding, because who knows what can happen to you in the future, and where you may end up,” she said.

Many of New Haven's homeless are living in a tent city on the Green because of new rules limiting the maximum length of stay at city shelters.
Peter vanAgtmael
Many of New Haven's homeless are living in a tent city on the Green because of new rules limiting the maximum length of stay at city shelters.

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