Three years ago this fall, New Haven faced a moral and economic crisis. The Cedar Street Overflow Shelter — the city’s largest emergency shelter — was about to close its doors. Decimated by cuts in the state and city social services budgets, the shelter was about to leave over 100 men to spend the winter sleeping outside.
Yalies and community members came together in a campaign known as Shelter Now and raised over $100,000 to keep the doors of the facility open. The shelter stayed open and the budget crisis was solved, at least for that year. But the campaign really won only borrowed time.
Three years later, New Haven still faces a housing crisis. The city is still funding the Overflow Shelter and other shelters on meager budgets. We are laying off the social workers who help our neighbors escape homelessness, and we are relying on private money for some of our most essential public services. Our community has fallen into a permanent state of financial uncertainty and danger.
This situation is not sustainable. The 2008 Shelter Now campaign should have been a one-time project to solve a one-time budget problem; it was never meant to be an annual project. But, because of our state and city’s continued struggle to fund homeless services, we are about to launch Yale’s fourth Shelter Now campaign.
When Shelter Now began, we hoped our campaign would show state and city government what our community at Yale and in New Haven wanted: a social service system that took care of homeless people instead of leaving them out in the cold. We hoped that, in future years, government would give homeless service providers the funding they need and stop cutting budgets at the expense of our clients’ ability to survive.
Instead, the cuts have continued, and so our work in service, advocacy and fundraising has continued.
The reason you should care is simple. Homelessness hits closer to home — and closer to campus — than almost any other economic problem. We share New Haven with more than 700 people who are without homes — who sleep each night in an emergency shelter, or on the Green, or in cars, or in public space in parks or on Broadway.
Homelessness is not an identity, a choice or a fate. It is a state of being. We’ve heard too many students say, “I’m afraid of homeless people.” And we wonder — why? Homeless people are not thieves or directionless substance abusers or violent any more often than housed people are. They are real people. They are women, veterans, children, college graduates, Ivy League graduates. All they have in common is that they can’t afford a place to live.
And for that reason, they have to live in emergency shelters. Emergency shelters are necessary, but even the best have serious problems. They are places where chronic homelessness and desperation are common and where violence is not rare. Living in an emergency shelter does not necessarily hurt a person — clients hold jobs, recover from substance abuse, get education — but it often does. Too often, it takes away a person’s dignity and independence and destroys his self-respect.
So this fall, Shelter Now is shifting its focus away from emergency shelters and toward support for more permanent housing. We want every person who needs it to get the services and financial support — both public and private — he needs to avoid being shuttled from transitional housing to shelter to jail and back again.
Shelter Now financially and politically supports Connecticut’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing this fall. HPRP was implemented in 2009 as part of the economic stimulus and works to keep people housed and prevent long-term homelessness. Through HPRP, people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness can get crucial assistance to stay in their homes or move into transitional housing. HPRP both gives people housing and helps them maintain their dignity and independence.
HPRP will also bring our state and country closer to ending homelessness. It’s a way toward a world in which everyone has access to housing appropriate to his needs and economic situation. It’s time to end our permanent state of emergency.
Amalia Skilton is a junior in Calhoun College. Chelsea Andreozzi is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. They are co-directors of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project.