Starting this year, Yale students wishing to lend a helping hand to needy New Haven residents can make sure their money will truly improve the situation of impoverished panhandlers.
At Yale, New Haven Cares, a citywide nonprofit founded in 1996, is a division of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project that sells vouchers to students who can then deliver the vouchers to local panhandlers. At its inception, YHHAP became involved in handling voucher distribution on campus, but the Yale division of New Haven Cares disbanded in 2003.
Last year, Alex Johnson ’08 began the process of relaunching the group, and over the summer Edward Dunar ’08 agreed to take the reins and lead the initiative, Dunar said.
“Initially, what compelled me to spearhead New Haven Cares is that I wanted vouchers to distribute,” Dunar said. “I wanted my money to go to people who actually needed it.”
New Haven Cares distributes vouchers on campus in two ways, Dunar said. Each residential college has a New Haven Cares representative responsible for selling vouchers to students. The names of the representatives will be distributed around campus in about a week, and at that point, any student interested in purchasing vouchers can contact the liaison for his or her respective college, he said. Additionally, New Haven Cares student representatives will be selling vouchers outside dining halls during dinner on Oct. 26 and Nov. 30.
Once students purchase vouchers, they can dispense them among local residents asking for change, Dunar said. Written on each voucher is a list of New Haven locations at which it can be redeemed. Locations include Connecticut Transit, grocery stores, homeless shelters, a pharmacy — even Lucy’s Hair Salon — but participating merchants are not allowed to exchange the vouchers for alcohol, tobacco or money. This mechanism ensures the vouchers assist panhandlers in acquiring life’s necessities and prevents abuse of the system. The two most frequent locations at which vouchers are redeemed are Shaw’s and Connecticut Transit buses, Dunar said.
After participating businesses receive the vouchers, they bring them to the New Haven Cares citywide headquarters and are reimbursed 50 cents per voucher. The reimbursement comes from the initial funds contributed by the purchasers, while the administrative costs of running the program are covered by other charitable donations.
Stanley Seiden ’10, who will serve as Berkeley College’s representative to New Haven Cares, said he was very eager to participate in the initiative.
“When I heard about it, I thought it sounded like a great project, an easy way to help the community and one that many students would participate in,” he said.
The voucher program is designed to help as many people as possible while reducing the amount of panhandling abuse, Dunar said. Certain panhandlers may occasionally fictionalize details about their income or living situation, he said, but the biggest issue associated with deceptive panhandling is that it enables self-destructive behavior. In a recent study, the Michael Scott of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing found that some panhandlers consider panhandling a stable, regular job: They have a standard story about their situation — their sales pitch — and a regular clientele who contributes. In this sense they enjoy a regular business relationship. Some panhandlers believe this method of earning money is more profitable than pursuing employment, Scott said, a sentiment that compels some of them to avoid pursuing more constructive jobs.
Vouchers do not afford flexibility in spending, as they can only be redeemed at certain locations and for certain items. Because of that, receiving vouchers instead of money is a disincentive for panhandlers with more constructive employment opportunities to continue asking for change, Dunar said.
“I think it’s a fantastic solution that kills three birds with one stone,” Dunar said. “The students who want to help out but are concerned that their money might not be going to responsible ends can be confident that it is being spent responsibly.”