The New Haven Green’s reputation as a hub of disorderly conduct, homelessness and drug dealing may soon become a thing of the past. Project Green Thumb, launched just two months ago as a pilot, has already begun to turn the stereotype around.
Project Green Thumb — devised by Downtown/Wooster Square District Manager Sgt. Roy Davis in collaboration with the New Haven Police Department and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees — aims to reduce arrests and provide community service for the New Haven Green, typically a hotbed for quality-of-life crimes, such as public urination, public intoxication and panhandling. The program, which began on Jan. 1, allows individuals who commit quality-of-life crimes to pay fines with community service hours. Already, 135 individuals have taken advantage of this alternative.
“You can’t arrest your way out of every crime,” NHPD Media Liaison David Hartman said. “So community service, with regards to the greater good, seems to be a better idea than slapping somebody with a fine that they can’t pay.”
Fines for quality-of-life crimes are usually priced in proportion with the magnitude of the infraction, Hartman said, adding that this system tends to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. When homeless and income-insecure individuals are given a fine they cannot pay, jail time prevents them from actively seeking employment, he said.
Project Green Thumb, which is Davis’ brainchild, resolves this issue while revitalizing the community. Instead of costing the prison system money by being an inmate, offenders can contribute to the community by cleaning up the Green.
Project Green Thumb is also working to make social services more accessible to the homeless and disenfranchised residents of the Elm City. The city has asked two outreach social workers from Columbus House, a privately owned homeless shelter, to focus their efforts on the Green so that their resources are more accessible.
With the quick success of Project Green Thumb, the city hopes to collaborate with New Haven Community Services Administrator Martha Okafor and expand Columbus House’s outreach work to include a “one-stop social service” location. This branch would host representatives of all of the city’s social-service programs in a centrally located and easy-to-access location. Davis said his eventual goal is to merge all the aspects of Project Green Thumb — from the information sources patrons consult to the social services they need — into one building, simplifying the process for those who wish to take advantage of the program.
The pilot has received positive feedback by local residents, who anticipate that it will reap additional rewards for the community in the future. Anthony Johnson, who spends most afternoons on the Green, expressed his appreciation for the availability of social services through Project Green Thumb, as he attributes much of the homelessness on the Green to underlying mental and emotional issues that have not been resolved and have led to drug addiction.
Christopher Vega, a student at Gateway Community College and frequenter of the Green, said he hopes to see an expansion in the range of community services for which people can exchange their fines. Vega added that helping clean up the Green gives people valuable vocational training essential to future employment.
“At the end of the day he’s got that experience — working a lawnmower or weed-whacker,” Vega said.
Rebecca Bombero, director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees, said she can already see the improvements Project Green Thumb has brought to the Green. She said behaviors on the Green seem to have improved “considerably,” adding that it is now easier to maintain the Green.
“We have received a good deal of positive feedback over the physical appearance of the Green,” she said.
The program’s success in New Haven has prompted similar efforts in neighboring cities. The city of Waterbury is currently conducting research to see how they can adapt Project Green Thumb to meet the needs of their community.
Project Green Thumb is currently seeking community groups, nonprofits and businesses to host volunteers for their community service hours.