DeStefanomania? DeStefanation? John the Vote? The name of our Commander in Chief makes for much better portmanteaux and calls to action. But, as I learned at this year’s State of the City address, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. sure knows how to Barack a crowd.
I’d like to think I’m normally pretty critical — especially toward the sort of gooey, uplifting rhetoric of which Obamas are made and wonkish Obamanites are wary. But I just couldn’t help it. This guy was good.
Unsurprising for a man running for a ninth term, the mayor continually stressed the collective over the self — “what we are best at … what we value” — only hinting at self-congratulation when announcing his personal 3 percent salary cut, a sacrifice to the common good. Whatever happens, DeStefano tells us, we are ready to move forward as “one city, one community, one New Haven.”
The language of community was complemented by that other sacred American value: rebirth. Things “will first get worse,” but New Haven will rise from the economic crisis — just like Warren Kimbro, the recently deceased killer-turned-activist, the exemplary personality of a God-loving town where people “die and come back to life.”
Beyond such deft moral rhetoric, our mayor was the spokesman — the conqueror — of the impossible. Abstract utopia was wedded with substantive reality. “New Haven is not a home” but “a set of values … an open, welcoming, progressive, fair community” — while also the dwelling of the oft-repeated “real people.”
Our city, as I learned, is a haven of perfection. “The state of our city is good; the national economy is not. … When the state catches a cold, we get pneumonia. … Our economy, unlike theirs, is fundamentally strong.” Union employees have been offered a no-layoff pledge. Students who show a disciplined commitment to college will be guaranteed a financial chance to pursue it — “the kind of promise that great cities make.” And 61 percent of those receiving city foreclosure counseling were able to keep their homes — “New Haven at its best.”
I didn’t have to hear DeStefano’s speech to know that “we do things other people don’t do” — take, for example, 7,000 Elm City ID cards and 28 charter and magnet schools. The mayor’s words reaffirmed my pride in New Haven as a progressive city.
Beneath the rhetoric, however — or after it, once the adrenaline wore off — was something deeply troubling. This city is not infinitely solvent, and I know it. Selfless and, in most cases, unpaid advocates had to raise upward of $350,000 worth of private money in order to help the city maintain its “No Freeze” policy for the homeless this winter.
It’s not that the mayor’s speech glossed over this fact (among others) in order to hoodwink the public into thinking all is actually well, which is clearly not the case. Instead, his speech worked to suppress and compress otherwise unwelcome thoughts shared and consciously experienced by all.
January’s annual census says that the city houses more than 1000 homeless, including 200 children and an estimated 400 with mental illnesses. New Haven’s homeless outnumber those of surrounding towns combined by, well, more than 1000, for it is common practice for suburban policemen to transplant them to the only city in the state that invests any of its own funds in homeless relief.
Defection by regional neighbors is magnified by a lack of county government. For now, as long as the mayor leaves it to volunteers to quell the tidal waves as they come, state government is the sole apparatus for institutionalized, political change.
But the state has failed us. Four hundred and twenty-eight handwritten letters from Yale students notwithstanding, Gov. M. Jodi Rell recently slashed more than $2,000,000 from the state’s housing and homelessness budget. This was only fitting, given her earlier obliteration of the third and most recent incarnation of the Next Steps program, which would have provided permanent supportive housing — widely considered the long-term solution to homelessness — across the state.
Unprecedented activism in the fall — to the tune of $35,000 worth of grassroots funds raised by Shelter Now — brought shelter in the winter. But the charity, the cash, the 40-plus student groups, the tents, the fasting and the shelter are only temporary victories. The crisis has been kept at bay this winter, but it’s still a crisis, and rejoicing in what we’ve done is like giving a DeStefano-style speech in a vacuum.
What do we do now?
We can’t count on Hartford, so let’s rally citizens across the state. Let’s go to Hamden, West Haven, Waterbury, Branford and Bridgeport. Let’s hit up churches, schools, nonprofits, businesses and town halls, and let’s talk to them. Let’s say that permanent supportive housing is an obvious cost-effective solution to homelessness — it pays for itself in shelter dollars in just three years, and provides rehabilitating case management and a safe, comfortable environment where people can come back to life.
With a sustained statewide effort we can ground Mayor DeStefano’s rhetoric in reality, put New Haven’s money where its mouth is and save scores of citizens suffering from the city’s pneumonia.
As the mayor puts it, “This isn’t a game. This is real. This is real life.” I reckon that means we should do something about it.
James Cersonsky is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College and a coordinator of Shelter Now.