It is not often that city officials, New Haven residents, Yale students, and the homeless all sit together, listening attentively to a single person.
But that is exactly what all of those groups were doing Wednesday night at the First and Summerfield Methodist Church, where University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis Culhane delivered a lecture and responded to questions on homelessness from an eighty-member audience.
Culhane spoke about how studies he and his colleagues have done indicated that the construction of permanent housing would be the quickest and best solution to what he called a nationwide “homelessness epidemic.”
“Homelessness is a direct result of a lack of affordable permanent housing,” Culhane said. “And a subsidy looks very much like a cure for the homelessness problem.”
During a question period, one audience member, who identified himself only as “Fred,” said Culhane’s suggestions could only succeed with political support.
“All this sounds good, but we need to get it to the politicians,” he said.
A pre-lecture slide show arranged by The Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, or YHHAP, elaborated on the problems of poverty and homelessness in New Haven. The slide show claimed that 20.5 percent of New Haven families live below the poverty level and that New Haven is one of the 10 poorest cities in America despite the fact that Connecticut is the state with the second highest per capita income.
But Ward 10 Alderman Ed Mattison countered that New Haven is already doing a lot to combat homelessness.
“Part of the problem is that New Haven already does more than all the other cities in the state combined,” Mattison said. “We spend $1,400,000 on shelters and services each year. No other city spends ten cents.”
Mattison added that New Haven’s homelessness problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is one of the few communities in the region to provide effective shelters and services. The state, Mattison said, is at fault for much of its “homelessness epidemic,” and alleged that state agencies like the Department of Corrections and state mental health and substance abuse authorities just drop off their wards at the shelters when their treatment is deemed complete.
“The state capped its payment for shelters 10 years ago and it hasn’t increased since,” Mattison said. “It’s the state’s failure on all levels, especially in the use of shelters as a dumping ground.”
Sheila Allen-Bell, the city Administrator of Community Services, agreed that the problem was not just with New Haven.
“The homelessness problem is much bigger than city government,” Bell said. “Everyone needs to come to the table and take some responsibility.”
Student leaders were just as defensive of the city and just as critical of the state.
Magni Hamso ’05, who is a coordinator of Yale Hunger and Homelessness Project, said Connecticut was failing in its fight against hunger and homelessness and that student advocacy could help to change that.
“Students can have an effect by participating in advocacy, especially on the state level,” Hamso said. “Connecticut doesn’t really deal with homelessness on a state level.”
The event was organized by YHHAP, an umbrella organization for a number of service clubs and advocacy groups, especially focused on issues related to hunger and homelessness. The organization is perhaps best known on campus for their biannual “YHHAP fast.” During this fundraiser, students give up their dining hall meals for a day and a portion of the cost is donated to YHHAP, which then donates the money to various local, national, and international charities.