Bringing up homelessness is a little like hearing an overplayed pop song on the radio — the response to both is usually “Oh, THAT again?” Sure, it can be annoying to have someone repeatedly parade a bunch of the same old sad stories of people on the streets freezing out in the cold. And no one really wants to be made to feel guilty about it, because after all, it’s not like we are responsible for their poverty or lack of housing. Besides, there are so many other things to worry about today, right? From the war in Iraq, to terrorism, to the economy, not to mention all of our academic stresses…
Well, that could almost be understandable — if we didn’t live in New Haven. The Elm City, sadly, is home to a disheartening trend in homelessness. As winter approaches, do you ever wonder what it’s like to have to brave the cold out on the streets?
Homelessness is on the rise in New Haven. A week-long survey conducted by the New Haven Continuum in 2003 found that more than 1,300 people (including 400 children) were homeless and nearly 4,000 people reported being homeless at some point over the past year. But many community advocates feel that these numbers are underestimates; that in reality, many more are facing the harsh reality of living without secure residence.
The amazing thing is that Connecticut has the highest per capita income in the country. Sadly, this is juxtaposed with the fact that it is also home to three of the poorest cities in the nation, Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport.
The real issue at hand is the lack of affordable housing. As defined by the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD), for housing to be considered affordable, expenditures must not exceed 30 percent of a renter’s income. Right here in New Haven, this translates to earning an hourly wage of $18 in order to realize affordable rent for a two-bedroom apartment. We’re graduate students without families, and we’re not even sure we could find a job earning that much right away! And for the majority of people here in New Haven with less advanced educations, their skills might restrict them to entry-level employment, earning minimum wages of $6.90 per hour. At that rate, employees would have to work over 100 hours a week just to achieve fair market rent without having housing costs levy an excessive burden on their modest incomes.
If you’ve read this far, then maybe our cynicism about Yale students’ apathy towards homelessness is unwarranted. If that’s the case, then maybe you will consider joining us and many of your peers, as well as members of New Haven’s homeless community, on Cross Campus tonight at 7:30 p.m. We will be holding a candlelight vigil outside of the Sterling Memorial Library to portray the plight of the homeless in our city.
You may be wondering why we would hold a candlelight vigil to highlight the crisis of homelessness in our midst. After all, aren’t vigils normally reserved for commemorating people who have died?
In many ways, the homeless are dead, to society at least. Many experience horrible mistreatment from pedestrians and police officers. Others are victimized by violent crime and rape. The majority are dealing with serious health problems that either originated before they became homeless or perhaps as a result of their state. But even worse, they are ignored. They fade into the background of Chapel or Broadway or York, a permanent fixture to the historic architecture of Yale and New Haven.
The 1,305 candles we will light on Wednesday night will visually represent the 1,305 souls that still burn brightly in our city, but are at risk of flickering in the approaching winter wind. You can show your support by coming out and standing alongside our neighbors on the streets. Or by endorsing major improvements to the city’s response to this crisis, such as instituting a “no-freeze policy,” guaranteeing emergency shelter for anyone if the temperature drops below a certain level. Or by signing up to volunteer at the many great service opportunities in the area like the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK) or Harmony Place. Either way, just find it in your heart to come out. Because at the end of the vigil, when our hands and feet are numb and our faces sting and our lips are cracked, at least we have somewhere nice and warm to go to. A place we call home.
Dave Chandrasekaran is a second-year student at the School of Medicine. David Stuckler is a first-year Master’s student in Epidemiology and Public Health.