How many times have we all zipped down York Street to the echo of this familiar refrain: “Got any change today, a little change today?” After a while, you begin to wonder if they really expect anything. We are students, after all, and most of us only carry credit cards. And if we did have something to give, wouldn’t the spare cash only help fund the next alcohol or nicotine fix?
But one day one of us thought, What the heck, I have a few quarters I don’t need for the meter. So he offered 75 cents to a hapless fellow on High Street, and, to his surprise, the fellow refused. “I need 18 cents. I only need 18 cents,” he retorted, disgruntled. Was this some kind of joke? Feeling spited, he snatched back his money and turned back. And that’s when it became strikingly clear. The type of change these people need doesn’t come in denominations of nickels and dimes, but rather in a transformation of our understanding and a willingness to listen to what these neglected members of our community have to say.
There are two types of people without homes in New Haven: transitional and chronic. One is far less likely to come in contact with members of the transitional group, because these people are determined to make ends meet for their families at whatever cost and thus they experience only short-term bouts of homelessness. Often, the key triggers for descending into homelessness relate to accidents, job layoffs or unanticipated illness. A good example of this group would be the displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The main issue facing these persons is the lack of affordable housing. Housing and Urban Development estimates that a person earning New Haven minimum wage ($6.90 per hour) would have to work over 100 hours per week just for housing to be considered “affordable.” The average American is only two paychecks away from becoming homeless.
The chronic group is more challenging. Like our friend on High Street, these people tend to be homeless for lifetimes, even generations. In addition to the difficulties that face transitional homeless populations, the chronically homeless often struggle with disability and/or functional impairment that severely limits their ability to improve their situations. Though they represent only ten to 20 percent of the homeless population, they consume over half the public resources allocated to housing programs.
One of the major barriers to integrating this group into society is the frequency of mental health issues. In fact, homelessness and mental illness are so closely linked that it is often difficult to determine which is the causative agent. Many homeless people, unaware that they have a mental illness amenable to treatment, resort to self-medication with alcohol or other “coping” substances. Tragically, this reliance renders them ineligible for access to public housing and shelter services that can play a critical role in their reintegration. Would a civil society ever consider leaving cancer patients stranded on the streets because of their illness? Is the case of the chronically ill homeless population so different as to warrant such inequitable treatment? For these people, homelessness is a harmful chronic disease, the treatment of which is complicated by their financial and mental instability.
And regardless of whether this is an issue of individual responsibility, we cannot ignore the plight of the many children who are homeless. Right now, there are enough children without homes living in New Haven to fill all the rooms of Berkeley College.
A Cross Campus vigil, featuring the lighting of 1,305 candles to symbolize the 1,305 homeless people of New Haven, will begin a week of awareness events, including panels addressing the experience of New Haven homeless and a fast at undergraduate dining halls. Tonight and this week, we can redefine what change means for our community.
David Stuckler, Zoë Harris and Erica Jackson are second-year master’s students in public health. Justin Chen is a second-year medical student.