Garret Miller paces in front of the Yale Bookstore in full Bulldog-blue attire: navy woolen earmuffs, dirty blue sneakers, a raggedy royal-blue sweatshirt and worn jeans.
Miller may seem to be one of Yale’s own, but there is no mistaking him for a student. Miller is a panhandler. And like many of those who beg for spare change as students pass by on Broadway, he is far removed from University culture, yet simultaneously an indispensable trademark of Yale life.
“Yalies are very good to me,” Miller said, recalling the many students who have generously offered him up to $20 at a time. “But then there’s always that rich Yalie who gotta buy that cup of coffee or shop, shop, shop ’cause that’s how they was raised, and they can’t spare 50 cents for me.”
Love or hate?
Miller’s love-hate relationship with Yale is not unique. It is an attitude that several panhandlers said they share. On the one hand, some view Yale students as the most generous souls in New Haven. Many students aspire to eventually effect long-term social change and offer up pocket change as a short-term solution.
But on the flipside, panhandlers and experts on New Haven agreed that a deep-seated resentment of Yale students resonates throughout some less privileged New Haven communities. And such prejudices, some panhandlers said, crumble only when poor individuals spend years getting to know Yale students who will, over time, accept the beggar into their sometimes exclusive world.
Duke University visiting professor Elizabeth Chin, a former New Haven resident and the author of “Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture,” which includes an extensive case study on New Haven, said panhandlers might grow up with a vague resentment of Yale students. When conducting field research, she found that many homeless individuals would speak to her only after she assured them that she was not affiliated with Yale.
“I think they feel relatively hostile towards Yale and exploited,” Chin said. “Then they feel really unwelcome on campus with the locking of the quads, for example. They feel kind of alienated, and there’s a lot of bad blood. They also feel that the University doesn’t do a lot for the city. After all, the development of Upper Chapel Street doesn’t do Newhallville any good.”
As a teenager, Chin remembers joking with friends that anyone who could hit a Yale undergraduate while driving would win one point, with five points awarded for a Medical School student, and the maximum number for bulldozing a Law School student.
But, perhaps ironically, it was a group of Law School students who took the initiative in 1994 to improve the lives of Yale-area panhandlers — not all of whom are homeless — with inspiration from a case study, “Panhandlers at Yale,” conducted by Brandt Goldstein LAW ’92. Their program, New Haven Cares, which students are trying to expand today, provides a voucher alternative to delving out cash to panhandlers. Vouchers — which can be purchased at a rate of 50 cents from soon-to-be designated representatives in each residential college — are redeemable at local stores such as Shaw’s and the bus stop at the New Haven Green.
Goldstein said panhandlers were engaged in daily life at Yale when he interviewed them a little over a decade ago. In some cases, police officers would virtually recognize unspoken property rights held by panhandlers who stood every day at the same spot.
“The panhandlers were acutely aware of the academic schedules, nurtured a significant number of relationships with students who they depended on for the monthly take, they knew when Spring Break was, finals, midterms, summer vacations, and all based on constant conversations with the students,” Goldstein said. “I think they looked at the students as generous, and more generous, certainly, than older people in the community.”
Shana Schneider ’00, who works in Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs said panhandling is a problem that every city has to deal with, and she thinks it has even decreased in some areas of New Haven since her time as an undergraduate.
“The one thing you do see is a bit of a cycle,” Schneider said. “When there aren’t students here, there’s really less panhandling that goes on, than in districts where there are more students. To some extent, the panhandlers are going to where they will be receiving more money.”
One long-time panhandler, who identified himself only as Junior, the “How-You-Do Man,” said he has gotten by not only by collecting cans and spare change, but also through his warm interactions with Yale students.
“I come out here when I was smoking crack and drinking,” Junior said. “Everybody come in Toad’s and come by me, and I would sing, ‘How you doing tonight, how you doing tomorrow? How you been, how’s your mother? How’s your father, how’s your sister? Lord have mercy now, oh how you doing?’ I was dancing around, and they used to love it.”
But students had conflicting opinions about whether panhandlers like Junior should be welcome on Yale’s campus. David Rector ’07 said he would enjoy Yale more if begging were eliminated from the streets surrounding campus.
“My general policy is not to give money to homeless people,” Rector said. “Part of me feels like an asshole, but then again, I guess the main thing is if you just keep giving people money, it just institutes more and more ideas that are contrary to the principles on which our country is based.”
But William Wong ’09 said he thinks students should seek to remedy the community’s negative perception of Yalies in any way possible.
“They think of us as any New Haven resident thinks of us — as overprivileged kids who are just mooching off the land,” Wong said.
One freshman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she justified her decision to withstand repeated panhandler requests by silently promising herself that, as a Yale student, she will achieve more significant changes after graduation.
“I justify it by saying it’s okay if I don’t give a dollar to this person right now because over the course of my life, I’m going to make it up by acts that are going to matter,” she said. “I’m going to do something with my life like make a change in policy and society, or when I have a lot of money, I can give it to charities. But for now, I find myself going to Starbucks and spending too much money.”
The flower lady
For now, many of New Haven’s panhandlers continue to fight individual uphill battles for attention, acceptance and money from Yale students. But one panhandler, Annette Walton, better known as the “Flower Lady,” said she has already won her battle, rising up from homelessness thanks to Yale students who she said understood her plight.
As a child in the impoverished New Haven suburb Newhallville, Walton hardly knew her future stomping grounds existed.
“When I was a little girl, we didn’t know anything about no Yale,” she said.
But soon, Walton began to spend time around the campus, befriending as many students as she could.
“I like Yale students, because they come from all over the world,” Walton said. “If I can talk to this here person who is from Japan or Egypt and they tell me something about that, I’ve been there, too. I never knew that cactuses had flowers ’til a girl from Texas tells me they do.”
After years of panhandling, Walton said she gradually earned enough money to purchase a vending license and a home. Walton said Yalies’ compassion is why she is still alive.
“A lot of good things happen to me out there, and God say if you be good to people, it come back to you,” she said. “Without these students, I’d probably be off in a dump or dead.”
Yale Law School professor Robert Solomon said that since simply giving money to panhandlers may not achieve the ultimate desired social outcome, direct action by students is needed to address the larger question of homelessness. He said such action, which should include support of better housing, improved child care, and a decrease in the gap between the rich and poor in New Haven, must not be postponed by students until after graduation.
“I think people at shelters are completely oblivious to Yale, because they have important things to concern them, and the last thing on their mind is Yale University,” he said. “They may think that people at Yale are pampered and part of a privileged elite, and that’s certainly true. They may think that Yale is overly removed from the city, but mostly they’re striving to get by their day.”
Solomon said Yale President Richard Levin has done a “fairly good job about caring about New Haven,” during the past decade, but he said the question of whether the community truly wants to make a serious effort to solve homelessness must be posed above all.
“Life changes dramatically when you change your seat at the table, so when you’re out on the community and you have nothing to do with Yale, then it’s easy to blame Yale University,” he said. “It’s hard for a Yankees fan to feel how the Red Sox fans feel and why, and vice versa.”