Remember how bitterly cold it was last week as you rushed between classes, your dorm room, and the dining hall? Imagine how much worse the cold winds would have felt if you had had no place to escape from the weather. For hundreds of people in New Haven, this is sadly the case.
This news probably comes as little surprise to you. It might come as a bigger surprise that lack of shelter is not the biggest obstacle facing the homeless. The biggest obstacle they face is marginalization — marginalization from society. Their daily struggles make them feel alone and hopeless. People pass them on the street, stereotype them, and avoid even eye contact — dehumanizing them, just because they do not have a home.
Several years ago, a group of Yale students set out to address this problem: they created Harmony Place, a community center run jointly by students, people who are homeless, and others in the New Haven community.
Harmony Place seeks to break down barriers between homeless people and Yale students through the formation of close interpersonal relationships. Rather than counter their marginalization in an external way by providing shelter or a free meal, Harmony Place is focused on providing intangibles such as friendships, conversations, and a comfortable environment. The combination of these gifts can play an important role in allowing the homeless to feel like people once again. This is an extremely important step in the process of working their way out of homelessness.
Pamela Williams, who once lived in one of New Haven’s shelters, remembers looking forward to afternoons and evenings inside Harmony Place because they offered a break from the shelter environment. Her nights at the shelter were “like being in a cage,” but when she had the chance to go to Harmony Place, she felt like she was “getting a little freedom.” At Harmony Place you are treated like a person, you are respected no matter where you come from or where you have been — whether you are homeless or whether you are a Yale student.
Williams is no longer homeless, but she continues to visit Harmony Place to keep in touch with old friends, meet new people, and to lend support to others.
And Yale students come back for the same reasons.
At Harmony Place, everyone is treated equally. Yale students, people who are homeless, and other members of the New Haven community sit down together and play card games, watch movies, write poetry, discuss politics, and just talk about their lives. Talking is perhaps the most important thing that happens at Harmony Place — talking and listening. Students can find themselves in conversation with a Hungarian draft dodger, a person who served time in prison, a rehabilitated cocaine-addict, a nurse from the Vietnam War, a knowledgeable scientist who once worked in laboratories, mothers and fathers, people who are homeless. By sitting down with the men and women who are homeless, students show them that they do care, that they do respect them, that they are indeed their friends — and that they do not look down on them for being homeless. In return, Yale students have the chance to look at the rest of the world from a different perspective and learn things that they would never learn in a class lecture or a textbook.
This exchange of perspectives is why Harmony Place is so important, it’s what Harmony Place is all about: conversations between students and people who are homeless, conversations that break barriers, conversations that fight marginalization, conversations between equals.
Harmony Place is located inside the Trinity Lutheran Church on the corner of Orange Street and Wall Street, just over one block from Timothy Dwight College. We have laundry facilities, phone services, and a clothes bank. We serve a meal every Sunday. For more information visit www.yale.edu/yhhap.