What is a tent to you? A site for camping, a pretend castle? Few of us would think of a tent as a home. Yet for people facing homelessness across the country, a tent is often the only available shelter from the harsh cold.
This winter, over 100 of our neighbors in New Haven might be forced to see tents in this way. For the first time in 20 years, the city of New Haven is unable to support the New Haven Overflow Shelter, which houses upwards of 125 homeless citizens in the coldest months of winter. Community organizations and the Shelter Now campaign have had to step in and raise the $350,000 needed to keep it open, and we are miraculously approaching that goal. As we reach the height of the campaign on Yale’s campus (next week!), let’s look back on all that has been accomplished so far — concerts, benefit parties, faculty lunches, Olympiads — and ask: Why raise awareness? Why this way, why now?
Why this way? On Saturday night, over 100 people will spend the night on Old Campus in tents. The following week there will be tents all over campus, a symbol to raise awareness of homelessness. But why sleep outside? Do we presume to know what it’s like to be homeless? Likewise, what do we accomplish when we participate in the YHHAP Fast? We cannot know what it’s like to starve.
A simple answer to these questions might be that these two events both raise money (lots!), which goes to Shelter Now. But the power of the symbol and the act of solidarity cannot be denied. Acts of solidarity have been part of political and social campaigns throughout history — in protests, marches and sit-ins. We can not feel another’s pain — the soldier’s trauma in Iraq, for example — but we draw attention to it. And we feel something. The conscious effort required has both internal and external effects: internal in that one physically feels the power of one’s own beliefs, external in that this belief made visible affects others and activates a powerful tool — hope. In light of recent events, I need not remind the reader how powerful hope can be.
Why raise awareness? Over the past months, Shelter Now, a coalition of over 40 student groups, has shed some evidence on this question. In part thanks to our efforts, the University generously decided to contribute $10,000 to this cause. The Shelter Now campaign has spread across the city, encompassing the efforts of the United Way, City Hall and others. Our caring has caused others to care. The result? The Overflow Shelter is now open; the city trusts us and our partners to come up with the rest of the funds to keep it open all winter.
And finally, why now? Because we are now facing a life-or death-crisis. Two homeless people, aged 47 and 49, died of hypothermia during a winter night in 2003. One wonders if other deaths go unreported. While the Overflow Shelter is temporary by nature, an immediate relief, it contributes to our long-term goals by offering social services, such as caseworkers, to help people become self-sufficient. It also prevents a larger crisis — the overload of emergency rooms, where many will go. Foreseeing this, Yale-New Haven Hospital gave an unsolicited $20,000 donation to Shelter Now.
Why should we deal with homelessness at all? We have already, in part, answered this question on the practicality level: Our emergency rooms will be clogged. Public safety will decline. Local businesses will have panhandlers in front of their stores. Prospective Yale students will see poverty and leave New Haven for Cambridge.
These practical concerns are very real, but we can’t end there. We must consider the fact that homelessness does not affect only one kind of person, but instead it is a tragedy that can befall any one of us — many Americans teeter only a few paychecks away from the abyss. The financial downturn is changing the face of homelessness, and the rate of homelessness of families is skyrocketing.
There are many more arguments — and always more statistics. For now, consider the urgency of this crisis, its location in our own neighborhood and our unique position to help. Remember that we are all citizens of New Haven, and we play a part in each other’s lives. The strength of our society must be judged by the well-being of its weakest members. The call of Shelter Now is an imperative to act now, to take on a problem which affects us all and which we all can affect.
Rebecca Trupin is a sophomore in Pierson College and a member of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project and Shelter Now.