I have no idea how many homeless people there are in New Haven. It’s a number that, as one of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project co-directors, I get asked about a lot. Conventional wisdom places the population at any given point in time at about 600 men, women and children. But a quick Google search will give you several different estimates, because no one can give an exact number for this constantly fluctuating population.
Knowing the exact number of homeless doesn’t usually matter to me. All it takes is an observant pair of eyes to recognize that the number of homeless in New Haven is simply too high. I know it’s too high each time I see someone preparing to sleep outside or am asked for food money on the street. The number of people living in New Haven without shelter will always be too high as long as it’s greater than zero.
But when it comes to allocation of funding for homeless services, “too high” doesn’t cut it. The Federal government and State of Connecticut, which allocate money to the city for social services, need to be convinced of the full extent of the problem. New Haven finds itself in a pickle for this year’s census: It is nearly impossible to count a population living between the cracks of society, but at the same time it is financially and morally imperative to do so.
This census is not the first time New Haven has attempted to count the homeless. In the past, YHHAP members, including myself, have been volunteers for the Connecticut Counts point-in-time homeless count, which happens every other year. Alongside community volunteers, Yale students hit the streets on a winter night with an absurdly long and bureaucratic survey to administer to anyone we suspect may be homeless. It is a test of our courage and prejudice as we choose whom to approach and ask our survey questions. We are largely ineffective, missing anyone spending the night out of view from the street. This is how I know the homeless population is grossly underestimated in New Haven.
Many of us have heard that by being counted in the census we bring over $9,000 to New Haven per year for the next 10 years. With the advent of the financial crisis and statewide budget cuts two years ago, the city has been forced to drastically reduce it’s funding for homelessness services. It has halted supportive housing projects, which were a part of the now defunct “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness,” and can no longer support the overflow shelter that houses roughly 125 men at night in the winter. A full count of the homeless population will provide for the maximum amount of funding for these lifesaving projects. This makes money the most obvious reason a full count of the homeless population is essential, though I am not convinced it is the most fundamental.
In counting the homeless it is all too easy to become condescending. One might be led to think we’re counting the homeless for their own good, to acquire more funds for their specific services. But we need to remember that homeless people deserve to be counted for more than just the money they will bring to the city. New Haven does have a thoughtful plan to count the homeless for the census, headed by a very sincere Jeffery Serena with whom I share many of the same sentiments.
The census’s founding principals, however, can be lost in the process. This week the census enumerators have visited the shelters, local soup kitchens and will be searching for homeless camps. YHHAP volunteers have devoted hours to helping the enumerators at soup kitchens and last Tuesday, I was at a count at Community Soup Kitchen. On site, I watched as an enumerator collected three of five of the first census questions (age, sex and race) from an older man. Three of the first five are enough to consider the form complete. The enumerator was about to move on to another man when his first interviewee asked if he wanted his name too. The enumerator said that the three answers were all the census would need for him to count. His name wasn’t needed.
We can do better than that. Yes, it is crucial that the homeless be counted for funding, but it is more important for us to realize not only how financially crucial it is to be counted, but also what a privilege it is to have our voices heard, our names recorded, to add to a more accurate picture of our country. It is everyone’s right to be counted.
When I’m counted next week, I want to be fully counted. I will proudly submit my form as a New Haven resident and with my name on top. The census counts humans. That is what we need to remember.
Joseph Breen is a sophomore in Saybrook College, the co-director of YHHAP and a staff photographer for the News.