You pass a panhandler on the streets of New Haven at least once a day. You’ve gotten good enough at avoiding eye contact and saying, “I’m out of cash, sorry,” that you don’t feel much more than a twinge of guilt now. When you’re walking with a friend past a person asking for money, there’s always a second of awkward, uncomfortable silence after you both turn him or her down. But the conversation between you two quickly picks up again, and the moment is soon forgotten.
Does this voluntary blindness make us bad people? It’s hard to say. There’s no obligation to give money, and it may be unfair of a panhandler to ask us for it. But since when did fairness and obligation define the right thing to do?
The city of New Haven is clear on its stance: Panhandling has got to go. A few months ago, Mayor Toni Harp launched the “Give Change to Make Change” campaign, which raises funds through colorful new parking meters that accept donations. The money is collected by the New Haven Free Public Library and is distributed to local organizations helping the homeless, like Youth Continuum and Liberty Community Services. It’s a feel-good story until you read the motives.
The Give Change to Make Change website encourages citizens to stop “enabling” panhandling so that downtown becomes a “friendlier, safer place.” It instructs New Havenites to “politely say ‘NO’” to requests for money and walk away. It claims that “panhandlers are not really homeless” – that there is, in the words of Executive Director of Town Green Special Services District Winfield Davis, “a professional panhandling population in downtown New Haven.” The problem, Davis says, is not that people are asking for money — it’s “that they may not actually need it.”
This is not New Haven’s first fight against homelessness — or perhaps we should say fight against the homeless. In December 2016, the city tore down an encampment in East Rock which housed 18 people. The residents had been given only a week of warning. The city claimed concern about homeless citizens outside in the cold, and that the campsite itself was illegal. City Hall claimed that everyone was immediately placed in a shelter, but according to Maureen Johnson, an advocate for the homeless, 11 had still not received housing by nighttime.
This is not a recent effort either. According to a report from the Yale Law School, as far back as 1996, the city council developed a policy that homeless residents “are no longer welcome” and described a plan to “continually remove [homeless people] from the places they are frequenting.” Police followed through with a “harassment sweep”: The homeless were “handcuffed, transported to an athletic field for booking, chained to benches, marked with numbers and held for as long as six hours” for crimes as small as “dropping a match, a leaf or a piece of paper or jaywalking.”
New Haven systematically discriminates against the homeless by setting them up for criminal activity. “Constructing or erect[ing] any building or structure for temporary use” is strictly prohibited in the Elm City. Pushing a shopping cart on a public street is punishable with a $35 fine. And though there are no laws yet against panhandling, loitering is illegal and gives police great flexibility in exploiting the homeless through an appallingly broad definition: “No persons shall assemble idly and remain in crowds upon any footway, sidewalk or crosswalks in any streets or in any of the public squares.” I’ve stood around countless times at the corner of the Green waiting to meet up with a friend, but because I wear Sperry’s and attend Yale I fared better than Tyler, a New Haven resident who’s been periodically homeless since 1998 and has been arrested or cited several times for loitering and the like.
There’s not even statistical justification for the city’s efforts. The 2016 “point in time” count conducted by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness showed that 625 people were homeless in the city on Jan. 26, 2016 — a 10 percent increase over the previous year’s count. There was also a 52.7 percent increase in the number of homeless people found sleeping outside rather than in shelters.
It would be unfair to blindly slam the city for all this, given the widespread efforts to increase the number of beds in shelters and meals in soup kitchens. But it’s impossible to avoid the fact that the city’s “solutions” are pushing the poor into the shadows and allowing the well-off to keep them out of sight.
Yale University has no official stance on panhandling. I’m glad this is the case — an institutional pressure to give (or not give) would undermine the value of the dollar we donate. We must recognize, however, that choosing not to help panhandlers neither equates to nor justifies discriminating against them. Don’t fall for the mayor’s rhetoric — erecting parking meters and tearing down encampments are just the latest steps backwards in the battle against homelessness.
Mrinal Kumar is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .