Ryan Liu ’18 had finished dinner with a friend in Berkeley and was headed back to his room in Morse. When he opened the gate onto Elm Street, a familiar face stopped him in his tracks. A middle-aged woman with worn clothing held out her open hand. “Can you spare some change?”
Last fall, Liu transferred to Yale from Pasadena City College, where he graduated first in his class. After two years of community college, a week of transfer orientation and seven months of political science at Yale, he had never been taught the ethics of interacting with panhandlers.
The woman stood before him, begging for money. He had chatted with her before outside the Starbucks near Old Campus, where the woman frequently asked passers-by for loose change.
Liu looked around ambivalently. He had no cash, just a debit card and a lot of questions. He knew the woman had limited resources, and wanted to help her — how could he? What would be most effective? And could he trust a stranger, however dire her circumstances? Would a little money really make a difference to her?
The dozens of New Haven residents who lack permanent shelter face daily uncertainty as to whether their basic needs will be met. As a result, many turn to nontraditional work — perhaps most notably, to panhandling. In the Elm City, panhandlers frequent the same sidewalks trodden by University personnel. Interactions between panhandlers and Yalies are quotidian. Every member of the University community interviewed — from the youngest freshman to the most senior administrator — had interacted with a panhandler on University property, many on a daily basis.
At a university older than this nation, the age-old problem of homelessness exists in plain sight. Just beyond the gates of Yale’s historic colleges, the homeless see themselves as forgotten citizens hidden under the university’s Gothic spires.
FACE TO FACE
“You’re the first person to stop and talk to me today,” said Tracy, who declined to give her last name.
Tracy, a panhandler who often finds herself within the Yale vicinity, said most passers-by ignore her, although she has spoken to many students over her 11 months in New Haven. Still, Tracy, who said she sleeps on the streets and occasionally in garages, knows little about the community service programs addressing homelessness offered by either Yale students or the city.
There is nothing illegal about panhandling itself, says Sgt. Roy Davis, who oversees the Downtown and Wooster Square districts for the New Haven Police Department. Davis, who joined the NHPD in September, identifies two categories of panhandling: the passive and the aggressive.
“There are those panhandlers who stand along with their sign, which isn’t really harming anyone,” he said. According to Davis, the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protects panhandling. He emphasized that aggressive panhandlers are a small and well-known number in New Haven. NHPD officers give tickets to those few panhandlers who demonstrate aggressive behavior such as stalking, physical violence, disturbing the peace or violating any kind of ordinance.
On and around campus, students interviewed unanimously cited peaceful, nonaggressive interactions with panhandlers. Many recognize familiar faces who consistently work the same area or street.
Territoriality is a hallmark of the trade. An elderly man who panhandles every day near the corner of Chapel and College says he has considered moving, but his success is heavily dependent on this specific location.
“I’ve thought about going elsewhere, but people know me here,” he said. “The lunch crowd, the businesses, the storeowners, they all know me here.”
The panhandler, who says he seldom gives out his real name, has worked the corner outside Claire’s Corner Copia for nearly 18 months. The market crash of 2008 ruined his retirement savings and forced him into homelessness.
Like other male panhandlers interviewed, the man said Yale students generally do not contribute much to his efforts. Students interviewed all expressed ambivalence about the decision over whether or not to give, though most said they tend not to donate. Even those who said they do occasionally lend spare change or offer to purchase food said that most times, they don’t do anything.
Female panhandlers interviewed indicated greater receptivity among students. One particularly well-known panhandler, Annette Walton, known around campus as “The Flower Lady,” frequents the corner of Elm and York.
“Everybody knows me. You can ask anyone if they know about ‘The Flower Lady.’ They say that I’m part of the family,” she said.
As we spoke to her on a Wednesday afternoon, three passers-by — all affiliated with Yale — came to greet her. One gave her a coffee, another hurriedly gave her a dollar bill, adding apologetically, “I’m sorry I’m in a rush, but I didn’t want to forget about you.” The third, a student, just smiled and waved.
Walton, who has been around Yale’s campus and community for more than 27 years, said she is relatively settled in, although she is still homeless.
“I’m obviously not good, or else I wouldn’t be out here everyday in the cold and rain. But all the stores and people know me and don’t bother me.” Walton, who gained her “flower lady” moniker by selling paper-wrapped flowers to pedestrians, had been arrested 69 times until she received a selling license — with some help from Yale students.
In the early 2000s, when Walton was arrested for disorderly conduct and faced a 90-day jail sentence for selling flowers without a license, students held a rally and slept out on the New Haven Green to protest. Yalies also led a fundraising event that successfully helped Walton obtain a $200 license. All charges against her were also dropped.
Yet, even for such a regular presence in the community, Walton said her relationship with undergraduates is in flux. She said that undergraduates in the ’90s were more likely to stop by or buy her flowers. Senior societies even took her to society dinners, Walton said.
“A few undergraduates still buy flowers, but many like to use their money to go shopping. I’m not mad at anyone. It’s their money,” she said. Still, she remains in that exact same spot on the corner of Elm and York, in case alumni return to look for her. “They come say hi, and sometimes they even bring gifts.”
All students interviewed said they were uncertain as to the best course of action when deciding whether or not to donate to a panhandler. Some question whether panhandlers are spending the money on substances like cigarettes and alcohol. Others wondered whether a short-term donation could help improve the panhandler’s long-term state.
Sydney Marks ’18 summarized the moral apprehension. “The right thing to do is help the homeless. But it’s really conflicting what to do. Long-term solutions are better — education, housing, the tools to get out of homelessness.”
Yet in the final calculus, many students are left unsure about how to best help. “I’m not sure there’s a right answer. Giving them money feels right to me, but often I just don’t know,” she added.
Darby Henry ’17 is a former board member of Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project and a frequent volunteer at Sunrise Café, which provides meals for low-income New Haven residents five days a week. Henry said she always engages with panhandlers when asked to help out.
“I either know them by name or have seen them around before,” she said. “I normally direct them to services that offer food or shelter, depending on what they are looking for.” While she has nothing against those who give change to panhandlers, Henry said she believes donating to organizations and services is generally the most effective solution.
BIRDSEYE: WHAT REALLY HELPS
John Bradley ’81, associate master of Branford College and executive director of Liberty Community Services, used to give panhandlers loose change, until he became involved in anti-homelessness work. Now, like Henry, he prefers focusing on long-term solutions.
“After entering the field, I started to encounter panhandlers I recognized. They weren’t necessarily homeless. Now … I’m much more skeptical,” Bradley said. “I generally don’t give money out. I try to focus my attention on long-term solutions rather than Band-Aid ones.”
Bradley’s shift in attitude highlights the wide range of opinions and rationales Yalies have about panhandlers. Although all students and faculty interviewed have encountered panhandling around campus, the University and officials have little in terms of guidelines.
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said the college has no official policy or guideline about how students should deal with panhandling in the neighborhood, but like many others, he said the appropriate response is to at least acknowledge panhandlers. Deputy Vice President for Human Resources and Administration Janet Lindner, who is in charge of police and security at the University, similarly said panhandling and ordinances are city jurisdiction, rather than a University one.
Without official guidelines or guidance from the University, students have drawn from personal experiences and undergraduate social justice organizations to address panhandling and homelessness.
Ian Garcia-Kennedy ‘18, the former coordinator of the YHHAP’s semesterly fast, encouraged students to be compassionate in their interactions with panhandlers.
“Regardless of your ability to give money to any individual panhandler, it’s important not to avert your eyes or try to ignore them. This may seem like the easiest option, but it’s very dehumanizing.”
Garcia-Kennedy, who is a staff reporter for the News, referred to a common tactic among members of the University community: avoidance. Across campus, students, faculty and visitors said they avoid potentially awkward encounters by taking alternate routes to evade panhandlers or averting eye contact when confronted.
Some University personnel, like Refi Aksep Sativa, a Fulbright language teaching assistant from Indonesia, receive a formal education on panhandling and homelessness from an institution abroad. Sativa, called “Puan,” or “teacher,” by her students, was instructed by her home university not to remove her wallet or purse on the street for fear of robbery. The lesson came as part of a “tips and tricks” session on life in the United States.
“They said, ‘You need to stay alert. There are dangerous things out there in America,’” Sativa said.
Xander Mitchell ’19, a coordinator of YHHAP’s Project Homeless Connect, attributes discomfort among University personnel to cognitive dissonance. “Both Yale students and the New Haven homeless population more or less occupy the same space, and yet the experience for the two groups is vastly disparate.” The paradox of abjectly impoverished individuals living in one of the wealthiest properties in the nation can be “awkward or uncomfortable for some students.”
Henry said Yalies sometimes treat panhandlers as a “regular nuisance,” but said students’ discomfort mostly comes from a genuine desire to help, coupled with an uncertainty about how to do so. She suggested a variety of responses — carrying food or street sheets, which offer a succinct list of shelters and food kitchens.
But for some students, even coming up with an appropriate response to panhandling does little to help them understand or address the broader issue of homelessness in New Haven. In fact, multiple students interviewed guessed that there are 1,000 to 3,000 homeless people in New Haven. In reality, the number is closer to 100.
Estimates on the number of panhandlers vary, but numerous sources familiar with the topic estimated the number of regular panhandlers in New Haven between 20 and 25.
The students’ overestimates likely stem from a misunderstanding of panhandling. Several students interviewed believed that panhandlers were homeless and conflated panhandlers with homelessness, attributing the ostensibly high number of panhandlers with high rates of homelessness.
Like other college towns, downtown New Haven attracts a high number of panhandlers relative to other neighborhoods in the city.
“We have a large college atmosphere which brings in a constant change in population, both in students and in families and visitors,” Davis said. “So it’s almost like there’s constantly new targets coming through for those panhandlers to ask.”
But not all panhandlers are homeless, and not all homeless individuals panhandle.
In fact, according to Davis, many panhandlers are “professional;” they panhandle regularly, for many hours at a time, despite having a permanent shelter in the Greater New Haven region.
He said that panhandling and homelessness rates in New Haven are similar to rates elsewhere.
“There is some connection between panhandling and homelessness,” said Ed Mattison LAW ’68, who is involved with Continuum, a nonprofit organization that provides housing options for the homeless. “But many panhandlers often do have a place to stay, because they need a base to operate out of.”
Mattison and others involved with social justice organizations in the city said the state of homelessness in New Haven is more closely linked with federal programs and state policies, rather than with the individual interactions between students and the small number of panhandlers around campus.
According to Bradley, severe cases of chronic homelessness have been in sharp decline over the past three decades. “We are making progress. The number of chronically homeless individuals in the past two years has gone down about 20 percent.”
Mayor Toni Harp has made the abolition of homelessness a priority of her administration. In summer 2014, the 100-Day Challenge to End Homelessness permanently housed 102 chronically homeless individuals. State and national legislators lauded the initiative.
But New Haven’s real homelessness problem today has little to do with street beggars. Instead, New Haven homelessness more often centers on families.
“Family homelessness is more a function of economic circumstances,” Bradley said. Unlike the common student conception of a homeless individual perpetually condemned to life on the sidewalk or the streets, family homeless is (often) more temporary, lasting days, weeks or months at a time before a family can find permanent housing. Once housed, however, formerly homeless families often continue to live in poverty for indefinite periods of time.
“Many families remain on the edge of homelessness,” he added.
According to Bradley, structural forces affecting the national economy are mostly responsible for the increase in family homelessness.
“Now there’s a more frequent disconnect between wages and housing costs. Housing costs are going up, but wages are stagnant,” he said.
* * *
Liu faced the very situation many sources across the University hoped to avoid. Halfway into his undergraduate career in New Haven, Liu had been in this position before. But unlike many of his peers, accustomed to constant confrontations with panhandlers, Liu opted to do something different.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t have any money on me, so I offered to drop by Gourmet Heaven to get money from an ATM,” he said. En route, the two struck up a conversation. “I learned more about her and her background: that she was born in Guilford, spent the last few decades in New Haven, and was really smart in school, but had to drop out.”
Liu withdrew money from the ATM and offered to buy the woman food. What she said next shocked him: “This was the first time during her time in New Haven that a Yale student has walked her anywhere.”
For Liu and the dozens of Yale students devoted to the eradication of homelessness, the battle is personal.
“As a first-generation college student from a low-income background who started the beginning of his undergraduate education in a community college, I spent formative years around veterans, single parents, former inmates and other low-income students who were at a time without a home,” Liu said. “Speaking personally, my mother and her family escaped as refugees from the Cambodian genocide and spent many months without a home — so I understand that, at times, uncontrollable circumstances lead to one’s condition in life.”
However an individual treats the homeless and panhandlers, Yale agrees on one matter: empathy. “I think beyond all, the most important thing is just to treat people with respect,” Liu said. “So even if I’m not able to spare any change or much time, I try to be nice and approachable, and to treat them with the same respect I would give to anyone I meet in my classes at Yale, because for all I know, they might even be a Yale student in the future.”