Of all of the problems that New Haven faces, perhaps the most obvious to the standard Yale student is homelessness. Few cities in the United States juxtapose poor and working class Americans with the elite of the future like New Haven does. The poverty of the city is obvious in the areas surrounding campus, but the mobility of the homeless makes this the only portion of the real New Haven to exist within the Yale bubble.
It often seems as if there is much to be done about homelessness but nothing to do. After all, for every member of the class of 2009, there is one person sleeping in New Haven in a shelter, a makeshift home or worse. But rather than talk about the problem in terms of impersonal numbers and policies, I’d like to leave you with a few suggestions about your personal interaction with the homeless here in the Have.
Don’t support panhandlers:
True support of the homeless population of New Haven should be coupled with a deep-seated disrespect of panhandlers. The people that are asking you for spare change on the corner of Elm and York are not deserving of your generosity. Most homeless are quite conscious of their positions as beneficiaries in the system of social welfare and would love to be afforded the chance to provide for themselves. Giving money to beggars supports their belief that they are helpless and worthless; you owe them more than that.
Be understanding, but not naive:
Much of the plight of the homeless is societal; in a country of 300 million people, a certain percentage is bound to be left behind. But our society works on a system of personal responsibility, and though many homeless are hindered by drug addiction or mental illness, many are not. We can blame the city of New Haven for not supporting the shelters and rehabilitation programs adequately, but New Haven already spends $15 million a year on homelessness. With affluent suburbs and their property tax dollars outside of the city’s scope, budget crises are common. Policies that limit stays in shelters are designed as incentives to get people back on their feet, but one wonders what could be more disruptive to rehabilitation than being forced out of stable shelter. We want to see the homeless take responsibility for themselves, but it’s difficult to do this when 13,000 of the 33,000 people who experience homelessness in Connecticut each year are children. It often seems as if everyone and no one is to blame.
Meet a homeless person:
With my experience with the homeless, I’ve learned many wonderful things. I’ve learned that some are fascinating and intelligent people, and that others are dull and stupid. I’ve met strong, courageous souls who have real plans to raise themselves out of their dejected state, and I’ve met others who have let themselves sink to feast upon the goodwill of society. I’ve met loving men and women who are generous beyond reason, and greedy worms who have no problem stealing and cheating in any circumstance. In other words, I’ve discovered that, shockingly, the homeless are just regular people. A few hours of conversation with them and you’d learn the same thing.
I wouldn’t be the first one to say that the community service opportunities at Yale are wide and many-splendored. But few of the world’s ills are as close to home as this, and few are as conducive to human interaction as this. YHHAP (the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project) and the related organizations of Dwight Hall have many ways for you to do just that.
In my two years at Yale, I have had the good fortune to meet many from this portion of the population of New Haven, to work as an advocate for their rights to things like food and shelter, and to learn from them about their lives in the Elm City. A good portion of my extracurricular energies here has been devoted to the homeless, and as such I feel capable of standing as an authority on the subject.
And yet, my ability to understand their world is greatly limited by the world in which I live. For me, Yale is a scant handful of nautical miles away from my home on the suburban north shore of Long Island, a place that affords little exposure to homelessness. For better or for worse, many Yalies share my sheltered background.
As such, my empathy is real, but it can never be earnest. Nothing short of experience could ever teach me about the daily difficulties that they face. Nevertheless, you can minimize this distance; just take an opportunity to meet one of these real New Haveners. Consider it part of your liberal arts education.
I doubt that most of you will jump up and join YHHAP and write Mayor DeStefano in protest of shelter closings and start working for the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen. (Though, of course, those things would be wonderful.) That isn’t necessary. All I ask of you is to give your fellow neighbors the respect that they deserve, the respect that society too often denies them in the name of sympathy. After all, they are just regular people.
Zachary Zwillinger is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. He is the coordinator of Harmony Place, a local homeless community center.