On any given evening, Yale students face a gauntlet of desperate and sometimes hostile pleas as they walk down Broadway — “a little spare change?” Based on the persistence of such behavior, I am led to believe that begging for money on Broadway must be a lucrative enterprise with few criminal consequences. If not, cold weather and empty pockets would have eradicated this behavior from Yale and New Haven long ago. Moreover, I am also led to believe that some Yale students must be giving money to the regular crowd of beggars while law enforcement officials look on with apparent indifference as panhandlers become an unwanted part of the Broadway revitalization effort.
One must look beyond the seemingly altruistic nature of giving money to beggars to understand its grave ramifications for the Yale community and the social welfare system. Homeless shelters, job agencies, and student initiatives such as the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP) help truly needy people fight abject poverty. Given the state’s current fiscal crisis and the limited resources of such social services, those interested in helping the homeless should consider volunteering at a shelter or writing letters to elected officials outlining the importance of fighting poverty. Giving small amounts of money to beggars, who have suspect levels of need, simply reinforces negative behavior and undermines the aforementioned resources we have to fight legitimate poverty. Those mired in poverty need a permanent solution to their problems and not sporadic handouts.
Moreover, how do we know that those begging for money are actually below the poverty line? Who are we helping when we give money to a stranger who claims to be impoverished? Are we helping fight poverty or blindly giving money to people with unknown financial circumstances? We do not know if our spare change actually helps alleviate poverty. In fact, our altruistic attempts to fight poverty may actually be perpetuating the problem by siphoning money from those truly in need. I believe that fighting poverty through organizations capable of identifying and helping the impoverished makes a more meaningful and effective contribution to the war against poverty.
In addition to possibly absorbing resources needed to fight poverty, the perpetuation of panhandling on Broadway harms Yale’s image and its efforts to revitalize the Broadway shopping district. Yale’s efforts to attract high-end retailers to the Broadway area during the past decade have been well-publicized and well-financed. Thanks to this plan for economic revitalization, Yale students and New Haven residents now enjoy shopping at stores such as J. Crew, Alexia Crawford, Thom Brown, and Urban Outfitters. Just as Yale invested large amounts of time and money to lure attractive merchants to Broadway, so too did the stores who ultimately accepted Yale’s invitation. High overhead costs combined with rough economic times have no doubt taken a toll on Broadway merchants. These stores do not need an omnipresent group of beggars guarding the doors of their establishments to drive away potential customers. Several Broadway store managers acknowledged that the persistence of panhandling has an adverse effect on business. They cited customer complaints and subsequently unsuccessful appeals to law enforcement officials as their primary concerns. The regular group of beggars on Broadway, funded by altruistic intentions, clearly hinders Yale’s efforts to revitalize the local economy, which would benefit the Yale community and the city of New Haven. Moreover, a robust local economy would create more jobs and funding to help fight poverty.
In addition to economic damage, the begging population on Broadway harms Yale’s appeal to prospective students and donors. A first time visitor to Yale cannot help but notice beggars surrounding Yale’s campus. When making the final decision about which college to attend, do we want a prospective student’s last impression of Yale to be a hostile beggar on Broadway? Do we want our parents and guests to fear for our safety due to less than friendly surroundings? Do we want visions of an investment project marred by beggars in the minds of Yale alumni when they decide whether or not to support the university financially?
The answer to the above questions is a resounding no. Most would agree that Yale fights a constant war to overcome the widely held opinion that the city of New Haven diminishes Yale’s appeal. Yale has made significant progress to improve the public’s perception of New Haven and cannot afford to take a step backward by passively accepting the rise in panhandling.
How do we reduce the number of beggars surrounding the Yale campus? Given the overwhelmingly negative consequences of simply giving money to the beggars, the time has come to discuss alternative solutions. I believe that a problem of this magnitude requires the attention of the Yale administration as well as New Haven’s elected officials. Student initiatives, although sound in purpose, lack the monetary, political, and legal clout to solve this complex problem. The solution to this problem should come from a coalition that includes Yale administrators and students, local businesses, New Haven city officials, and social welfare advocates. Despite the lack of an easy long term solution, we cannot avoid this dilemma nor can we deny the grave ramifications of our current behavior — sparing some change to “help the homeless.”
Grayson Walker is a freshman in Trumbull College.