Vigil honors local homeless

About 50 homeless individuals, activists and Yale students stood in the cold outside City Hall last night in remembrance of homeless people who have died outside in recent years.

Participants held candles in plastic cups and waved banners reading “Shelter the homeless” and “Jill, Andrew and Rosie,” the names of three homeless people who died from exposure last winter. They also rallied for a formal “no-freeze” policy to be passed by the Board of Aldermen to prevent such deaths in the future.

“We all know people who have died outside,” Edward Lopez, a homeless man and community activist, said. “One of them, Jill Harkins, was one of us. We are all diminished by our loss.”

According to Lopez, Harkins left the Columbia House shelter after getting into a dispute with staff concerning her heart medication. The staff said that if she left, she might not be allowed to return to the shelter. She was found dead in an alleyway near Orange Street early in the morning of Dec. 23, 2002.

The vigil was sponsored by Respect Line, a homeless advocacy group composed of homeless people, students and members of the New Haven community. The group aims to represent the voices of homeless people in policy- and decision-making regarding their own welfare.

Members of the group said they hoped to use the vigil to promote a “no-freeze” policy. Currently, the city’s informal policies have been largely successful in limiting the impact of harsh weather on the homeless people of the community, member Jessica Leight ’06 said. However, the deaths of the three individuals last year have prompted Respect Line to advocate a formal policy to the Board of Aldermen.

“Our campaigning focuses on the need for a formal ordinance that establishes a ‘no-freeze’ policy,” Leight said. “There is a lack of clarity of what homeless people’s rights actually are. Also, there is no formal mechanism of accountability. If there is a problem at a shelter, there is no written list of the responsibilities of a shelter.”

The vigil took place as members of the Board of Aldermen were exiting City Hall. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 attended the vigil and conversed with organizers and homeless people present.

Healey said the New Haven city government allocates $1.4 million to homeless services, more than every other town in Connecticut put together. These funds support the Emmanuel Baptist Church shelter, the Women in Crisis Center, Life Haven, and community development block grants, which all provide shelter to the homeless in the winter. In addition, there are contingency funds specifically set aside for the winter, and emergency rooms and police stations are equipped to shelter homeless individuals.

Healey says he would be happy to formalize a “no-freeze” policy. He said he knows of no aldermen who would oppose formalizing the policy, but he said advocates of a formal policy must continue to promote their ideas before the board takes action.

“Work needs to be done by the advocates to reach out to other members of the board because people are leery of anything new,” said Healey. “Advocates of the policy must talk to the board to gain support. They need to make it clear that this won’t cost the city any more money.”

Leight said she did not think a formalized “no-freeze” policy would require much additional funding by the city government.

“The shelters already have flexibility and resources such as extra cots, and they can make arrangements to let people stay inside,” she said. “The resources are already available if they can just be mobilized.”

Elm City residents gather on the steps of New Haven City Hall to remember homeless individuals who died from exposure to cold weather.
Zoe Pershing-Foley
Elm City residents gather on the steps of New Haven City Hall to remember homeless individuals who died from exposure to cold weather.

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