As one of the directors of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, I probably pay more attention than most when the issue of homelessness comes up in the News. So I’ve noticed the amount of coverage Saybrook sophomore Jerry Choinski has received for starting the Facebook group “Yale Undergrads against the (fake) New Haven homeless.”
The most recent coverage was the scene cover, “Hustling or Homeless” (Feb. 19), a feature on several members of the homeless community in downtown New Haven. The article opened with the Facebook group, and went on to ask the same question that Choinski claimed to answer: Are homeless people hustling you? The scene cover did, in all fairness, present some very compelling stories from the guests at YHHAP’s drop-in center, Unity House, and seemed to conclude (unlike Choinski and his Facebook group) that they probably aren’t. Still, it took over a thousand words and several moving stories for the article to get to that point.
So I’d like to address a slightly different question — why do people (and Yale students in particular), by default, assume that panhandlers are hustling them?
Panhandling is not — contrary, perhaps, to popular belief — a common or easy thing to do. There are over 700 homeless in New Haven; how many have you ever seen panhandling on Broadway? Very few — and the reason is that panhandling is extremely demeaning. For better or worse, no one in our society likes to beg for giveaways; people don’t want the world to view them as failures. Think about it — could you stand on the streets of your hometown and ask passers-by for money? Keep in mind, of course, that people like the students in the Facebook group will be judging you while you panhandle, assuming you’re lazy, and gossiping about how you decided to invest some of the little money you had in a cell phone, so that you could communicate with family, and maybe apply for jobs.
Chances are you would be somewhat uncomfortable and you might try to think of more proactive things to do. You might try to get a job. But maybe you’ve noticed from your own job and internship applications that even having a Yale education does not guarantee you employment these days. According to the Department of Labor, there are currently six applicants for every available job in the U.S. — and that figure is even higher for general unskilled labor positions. Throw in perhaps a criminal record, and your chances of employment are pretty slim. I’m a volunteer at No Closed Doors, a student-run organization where three hours a day, five days a week, we help low-income people apply for jobs. Over the course of this entire school year, very few have been successful.
Might you apply for government benefits? I certainly wish people accepted this solution, but the same stigma that is attached to panhandlers is also attached to “welfare queens,” thanks to the Reagan Revolution. For many people I’ve spoken to, going to a shelter or receiving benefits from the Department of Social Services is even more demeaning than panhandling. Besides, social programs provide far too little to stay afloat, especially when Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell is cutting benefits left and right.
As privileged students at Yale University, we often assume that there are hundreds more options. After all, most of us could probably find plenty of family members and friends willing to support us before we started panhandling. But it’s very hard to try other options when you don’t have many in the first place, and you’ve already been through all of them once. Essentially, panhandling is a last resort. If someone is doing it, it is because they have no other options.
Now, does this mean that every penny you give to a panhandler is used to buy the healthiest, most cost-effective food they can find? Of course not. Could panhandlers even spend your money on drugs? Of course. People often turn to substances when they have nothing left in their life to support them.
But even if a drug addict asks you for a dollar to fuel his addiction — I find it hard to understand how he is hustling you. Hustling implies intentionality, and a “gotcha” moment, where that person is suddenly better than you. As far as I can tell, at the end of the day, you’re a dollar poorer (you can deal with that) and he still has nowhere to turn and few ways to achieve a better life.
There, if that’s your idea of a hustler, by all means, join that Facebook group, and badmouth the panhandlers you see every day. If not, I’m not asking you to give money every time you’re asked. But I think you should promise yourself never to judge a homeless person.
Gabriel Zucker is a sophomore in Pierson College and a co-director of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness