There are people on the streets of New Haven who know what time certain Yale students go to lecture, what time they go to dinner, when they go to section and what routes they prefer to take when walking across campus. These people rely on these seemingly mundane details to make a profit. They are the ones who rely on the business and generosity of those in the Yale community to get by from day to day. They are the panhandlers, the hustlers, the needy, the homeless and — according to some Yale students — the fakers.
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After multiple run-ins with panhandlers on and around campus, Jerry Choinski ’12 decided to voice his frustration at what he saw as the deception and exploitation of Yale students. So in August he did what any new media-savvy college student would do: create a Facebook group.
The description of “Yale Undergrads Against the (Fake) New Haven Homeless” offers an implicit definition of a “fake” homeless person: someone who acts needy but also appears to have his or her basic requirements met — or surpassed. The “Flower Lady,” Yale’s most well-known panhandler, is fake because she “has a blackberry and lives in a nice apartment,” according to the group’s description. Another local panhandler is fake because “he drives a pickup truck and can afford cigarettes.” On the group’s page, members voice their frustrations at seeing local “homeless” characters wearing seemingly expensive clothes or spending large sums of money ($40 at Au Bon Pain, for example). They share stories of encounters and conflicts with panhandlers, shouting matches and sightings in local stores.
But the group is not without dissenters, and it conveniently provides a forum for them.
Olivia Wheeler ’10, who called the group “offensive and ignorant” in a wall post, is one such dissenter.
“I know how frustrating it is to be asked for money multiple times a day by the same person,” she said in a Facebook message to me. “But you just deal with it — just say no if you don’t want to give them money, you don’t have to whine about it on Facebook.”
Still, the group’s members maintain that they are being hustled and scammed unfairly. Choinski, the group’s creator, said in a Facebook message that he thinks Yale should do something about fake homeless people hustling students.
“Some of my friends are afraid to walk back to Stiles at night because of the panhandlers,” he said in a Facebook message. “I myself have been yelled at by a panhandler because I never give him money.”
The group currently has only 57 members, but their opinions are prominently and publicly displayed. So should these virtual voices be heeded? Should Yale students fear the ire of resentful panhandlers, and should the University crack down on seedy characters in the vicinity?
Who are these individuals, where do they come from, and how do they get by? The answers vary.
And where are they going? Nowhere — at least not anytime soon.
“Is this for GQ?”
Ben leans his body toward me, all six-feet-plus of him, and I can smell his sour breath and see that he only has a few nearly transparent teeth in the lower half of his mouth. He has a thin layer of grizzly white peach-fuzz hair over his skull, and he is unshaven. He is telling me his life story. Or so he says.
“It was a cold, cold morning in Chicago. I was an 11-hour birth. My mother should have been filled with pain at labor, but she was filled with joy at the birth of a new child.”
I realize Ben’s having a joke at my expense, and I close my notebook, only partly disappointed at the falseness of his tale. Ben is a great storyteller, and he fills his voice with gravity and emotion. He says he moved to New York when he turned 18, entered the real estate market and became a mentor to Donald Trump. When the Don became more successful, he dropped Ben, and the two lost touch.
“I call him up sometimes, but he blames me for his failures,” Ben deadpans.
I wonder if he is even from Chicago.
* * *
Ben is speaking in the basement of the First Lutheran Church on the corner of Wall and Orange streets on Valentine’s Day afternoon. He’s there for the free coffee and pastries supplied by Unity House, a drop-in support center for the homeless held every Sunday. He also comes for the bowling — the church basement houses, improbably, an old three-lane bowling alley, complete with varnished wood floors and pale blue lockers containing bowling shoes. Some of the more than 500 men and women who populate the streets of New Haven every night spend Sunday afternoons at Unity House. There, they take a rest from life out in the cold, where they survive on a mixture of good will (in this case pastries, coffee, and board games) and their wits.
Ben was hustling me in the interview, I realized quickly enough. I was taken in, toyed with, tricked, conned, scammed — all harmlessly, in this case. Later, Ben changes his tack: he says he has been homeless since October, and he had told me a tall tale just for kicks, because he could and because I would listen.
After speaking with Ben at length, I learn that he is from New Haven and that this winter is the first time he has felt like he has nowhere to turn.
“I’m living like a wild man,” he says.
Sometimes, he says, he goes to the Temporary Labor Staffing Service at 1291 Chapel St. for employment. He does auto work, and he says many other people in his situation also practice a trade — electricity or carpentry, for example.
Although Ben initially lied to me, I wouldn’t call him a con artist or a hustler – he isn’t slick like that and, as far as I can tell, he doesn’t want anything from me.
Introducing myself to guests at Unity House, I strike up a conversation with Emerson, a black, clean-shaven man in a leather coat who is playing chess with his friend Rob and losing (Rob declined to give me his real name in order to protect his privacy). A member of the roofers’ union, Emerson says he is out of work at the moment.
He found his way to homelessness very suddenly, he explains. When he was pulled over recently, he learned he had an outstanding parking ticket from 1991. After serving three weeks in jail and sorting out the violation, he was so behind on his rent that he was evicted. He put his things in storage and began sleeping in shelters.
With two backpacks filled with clean clothes, supplies and Tupperware containers of food, including fresh fruit, Emerson seems adequately prepared for braving the streets of New Haven. He speaks with resolve about how he will not be in “this situation” much longer.
He’s also not the picture of a hustler I hold in my head — someone street smart and crafty, who talks fast and makes money however he can. He’s looking for legal work, and he’s clearly not resigned to a future at places like Unity House. So far, I haven’t encountered the “fake” homeless who supposedly roam the streets of Elm City, but it’s only been two rounds of bowling and one game of chess.
Rob, the other chess player, and Emerson’s friend, is outside smoking a cigarette on the steps of the church. He tells me that he is not technically homeless — or completely without employment.
“I play the piano, I sing. I’ve written a book of poetry,” he says. The poetry is published on the Internet, he explains.
“A lot of people think I’m just lazy,” Rob says, but he says he has a disability that prevents him from working — just not one that’s readily apparent.
“I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Rob says. He has been in therapy for some time, and he says that the disorder manifests itself as mania, clinical depression and schizophrenia in varying degrees.
His condition makes it difficult for him to hold a job, he says, but he can afford an apartment nearby with a combination of social security, disability payments and the help of Section 8, a government Rental Voucher Program that assists low-income individuals with rent.
Rob says he could live with his father, who is a professor at Southern Connecticut State University, if he had to, but that he would rather be on his own. He says that his father is abusive and “a complete nut.”
“He’s hit every one of his kids,” he says.
Rob has clearly encountered the kind of resentment and annoyance some Yale students have expressed about “fake” homeless people who rely on social services or handouts, but who are not employed. He mentions that some people think he’s lazy, and it isn’t difficult to see why some might make that claim. After all, Rob has a place to live, with rent all but paid for him by the government. For hot meals, he can turn to soup kitchens and other charitable institutions. If Rob has the time, energy and concentration to write poetry and play music, one might object, why can’t he find gainful employment?
But how do you call someone lazy, a hustler or a faker when that person has been abused as a child, and when he may suffer from serious mental illnesses? Where is the line between qualifying for the assistance of society’s safety net and taking advantage of it?
Not everyone at Unity House comes primarily for the conversation, distraction and brief respite from the cold. Sam, an Indian gentleman with a carefully trimmed mustache, sporting a crisp plaid shirt and khakis, is at the church to meet with a student tutor from Yale. (Sam also declined to give his real name in order to protect his privacy). He is from Houston, Texas, and he moved to New Haven to become a missionary evangelist many years ago. After completing his studies at the Overseas Ministries Study Center on Prospect Street, he says, he found himself without housing. He has been homeless for 13 years.
Now, Sam is trying to apply to medical school. He is taking classes in health care, human biology and algebra at Gateway Community College (hence the tutor). To help him get by from week to week, Sam also relies on disability payments. He says he cannot do any physical work, even work that involves sitting for long periods of time, without pain from injuries sustained in a car crash many years ago. He also says he has no health insurance.
When I ask Sam about his experience sleeping in homeless shelters, he rolls up the sleeves of his shirt to show me small pink and purple bumps and markings on the undersides of his arms. “Bed bug bites,” he says, which he received while sleeping in the Immanuel Baptist Shelter on Grand Avenue. He sleeps in different locations from night to night, he says, whereas others often stay in one shelter with regularity.
“People have a tendency to carve out a territory once they’ve been there in a certain place for a certain amount of time,” he says. “That’s a sense of peace the way that having a job is a sense of peace out in the world.”
But how much peace can be found in a place where the beds have biting bugs between the sheets? And how can the sense of regularity one gets from staying in one homeless shelter consistently compare with the groundedness of having a real home? I don’t know what Sam’s chances of getting into a medical school are, but I do not begrudge him his attempt. I do, however, find it somewhat odd that he seems so comfortable sitting for an interview of at least 15 minutes when he says he cannot hold a job where he must sit for long periods of time.
I wonder if Sam has a bit of the hustler in him yet.
* * *
My afternoon at Unity House — a mere three or four hours with a handful of New Haven’s homeless — hardly begins to describe the stories of each man and woman on the streets of this city. Unemployment, disabilities, substance addiction, alcoholism, mental illness and abuse are lines in a litany of suffering that most victims experience alone, as they drift from shelter to shelter or squat in vacant buildings. Domestic violence, a lack of health insurance, the inadequacy of the minimum wage, unplanned pregnancy — these seem common tropes of stories told in Unity House. Each narrative has its own unique misfortunes and obstacles.
Back on campus, there is one apparently homeless person with whom many Yale students are familiar. She is charming (to some), approachable and loquacious. Her name is Annette Walton, but she is better known as the Flower Lady, and she has worked the street corners surrounding Yale’s campus for the past 18 years.
It is a snowy Tuesday evening. Yale is beautiful blanketed in white, until you stop and stand on a street corner for three hours to look at it. Then you become aware of very little besides the cold.
In such bad weather, I don’t expect Annette to be out, but she’s there, on a corner between the Law School and the Hall of Graduate Studies, waving down students and asking after professors’ children.
“Take care of yourself,” she tells them. “I didn’t see you yesterday. I hope you weren’t sick.”
Annette declines an invitation to chat indoors and says she would prefer to talk while she works, because this is her busiest time — 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. She speaks fluently about Yale’s internal timetable, and she can identify academic buildings with the ease of a tenured professor.
She won’t specify how much she makes each night, but she says that she’s trying to earn $15 this evening (a lot for a cold night, she says) to make herself a pot of spaghetti. Annette says she must rely on people who know and trust her to support her during the winter months. Trust, of all things, might be one of the most important aspects of the relationship between peddlers and their patrons.
She stands on corners where there’s light, she says, so that students don’t “mix me up with that other crowd,” the crowd that would be selling drugs or begging outright for money. As far as she knows, no other licensed peddlers sell wares the way she sells flowers. Annette has a monopoly on the Yale community.
“The freshmen are the hardest ones,” she says. “They’re afraid. Some of them have never lived away from home before, in a city.”
Once, nine years ago, a Yale police officer tried to send Annette to jail for 90 days for allegedly scaring students into buying her flowers, she says, but Yale students held a rally on the courthouse steps.
“Remember that? When I was fighting for my rights?” she jokes to a professor coming out of the Law School.
When she was unable to renew her City of New Haven peddler’s license last year, Annette says she turned to Yale students once again: “I told everyone I didn’t have the $200, and those girls [at the Law School] started e-mailing everyone,” she says. Students at the Law School raised the money Annette needed to regain her license. She shows me the laminated document proudly. It’s good for a year’s worth of flower-selling — Annette’s 19th.
Is a hustler still a hustler with a license? Can someone be a hustler when she has relationships with her “customers” that have lasted my entire lifetime?
‘NOT AN OBVIOUS KIND OF VIOLENCE’
Megnaa Mehtta ’10, an anthropology major, is writing her senior essay on homelessness in New Haven. She has spent the last several months visiting local shelters and soup kitchens, interviewing various subjects. Megnaa has gained the trust of the men and women she has interviewed, and she speaks with authority about the nature of urban poverty.
“There isn’t one type. You can’t put them in one category,” she says. Some homeless people make an effort to go to public restrooms or the bathroom in Starbucks to clean up their appearances every day, she says. Others, over time, end up sacrificing health and hygiene to crippling alcoholism, drug addiction or mental illness. Even when the behavior of the homeless seems incomprehensible to us, she says, there is usually a back story or explanation.
“Why does someone not want to go to the hospital, when it’s free?” she says, to illustrate her point. “Because when they do go, maybe the doctor doesn’t even want to touch them.”
Maltreatment by doctors, police and the public in general becomes “internalized”, Megnaa says. Psychologically, homelessness and the accompanying loneliness take a great toll on a person. Megnaa calls it “a kind of violence that isn’t really obvious … the way they are treated in everyday life.”
She clarifies: Someone who’s been homeless for 25 years, who is an Iraq war veteran, has seen things in his life that you and I will never understand. It is only natural that someone who has been through that experience might turn to drug use to dull the pain.
“Yes, I would take to alcohol,” Megnaa says, putting herself in the fictional homeless man’s place. “I would kill myself. And lots of people do.”
Suddenly, selling flowers seems like a tame life path for anyone who has been reduced to living on the streets.
* * *
Alison Cunningham, the executive director of Columbus House, a homeless shelter on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, has no patience when it comes to panhandlers.
“Unfortunately, the panhandlers often use us as an excuse to say, ‘Oh, I need money for the shelters,’ ” she said over the phone. “But most of those people are not people who stay in our shelters. So that’s a problem.”
Cunningham has bigger concerns than panhandlers on her mind. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. cut $200,000 from the city budget for funding for overflow shelter in 2007, and he has yet to allocate more money to the programs. Columbus House opens an overflow shelter in the winter to accommodate the additional homeless who need succor in the colder months, but the organization has relied on fundraising efforts to keep the overflow shelter open for the last two years, while it seeks a more permanent source of funds.
Rabbi Herbert Brockman, of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Conn., helped to raise money to support the Columbus House overflow shelter. He also helped to found the program Abraham’s Tent this winter, in which different churches and temples take 10 to 12 homeless men from the overflow shelter, feed and accommodate them.
“The first thing is we all wore name tags,” he said, describing the dinner he served to the homeless guests. “The next morning, one of the guests said to me, ‘What’s the matter? Are we nobody? Don’t we have names?’ They were glad we had name tags… but they wanted us to know their names, too.”
Maybe once you name a hustler, he or she ceases to be a hustler. I wonder. Once you know someone’s story, or merely stop to consider whether or not the person has a story, the hustling ceases to be a deception or a betrayal. A name and a face can elicit compassion and empathy where none existed.
“In truth, of course, I really don’t know if these people are ‘fake’ or not,” wrote Christopher DeCoro GRD ’12, a member of the “fake homeless” Facebook group, in a message to me. “While it’s one thing to make an off-the-cuff comment on a discussion board, I’d rather not go on the record attacking some people that, for all I know, really are desperate and have to beg to survive. I think my comment on the discussion group was a bit hasty, and, since I don’t really have any information about these people, I probably should have withheld judgment.”