Walking down Chapel Street is a fairly regular part of my routine. Most weekdays, I walk up Chapel toward the School of Art for class. On other days, I go to Artist & Craftsman and schlep back an 18” x 24” newsprint pad to my dorm room in Jonathan Edwards. I frequently walk from JE, down Chapel and back again.
Since I walk down this street, day in and day out, it wasn’t hard to spot a sign in front of Claire’s saying:
“GIVE RESPONSIBLY.” (Yes, this was in all caps, mind you). “Giving money on the street is not going to end hunger and homelessness. FACT — panhandlers on the street are not necessarily homeless or hungry.”
The sign then instructed me to “give responsibly” and donate to Give Change to Make Change.
I stood looking at the sign, feeling both outraged and perplexed. Why should I donate to an organization that underplays these pressing issues within the community? I felt perplexed because nearly 4,000 residents in Connecticut are homeless. According to the Yale Hunger and Homelessness action Project, “the food insecurity rate in New Haven is 22 percent — twice the national average”. I also felt outraged because a university with a $25.4 billion endowment is letting poverty and homelessness continue in its backyard.
Given that homelessness and food insecurity are such obvious and pervasive problem in New Haven, why would someone claim otherwise?
It is hard to avoid such gross structural inequality around Yale’s campus. I’ll bet that someone has asked you for money in the past month. I know that I was stopped three times on my way back from class on Tuesday.
And if you haven’t been stopped yet, it will most likely happen soon enough. In 2014, 25 undergraduates told the News that panhandlers asked them for money more than once a month (“A Haven for the Homeless,” Apr. 25, 2014).
It is true that programs like the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project and Dwight Hall exist. Yes, charity programs can do something to help with the material circumstances of members of the community, but this clearly isn’t enough to solve structural inequality in New Haven. Dwight Hall was founded in 1886, but homelessness and food insecurity continues to be a problem.
We continue to deny that socioeconomic inequality exists both in and around Yale when it occurs right in front of our eyes.
Perhaps deny is the wrong word. In the past week, there have been at least three columns in the News about socioeconomic disparities at Yale.
However, we usually have a dispassionate reaction to things that affect New Haven residents more directly than they affect Yale students. We avert our gaze when we see homelessness in the street and avoid the Green like the plague.
Yale’s fraught relationship with New Haven is hard — if not impossible — to ignore. Isn’t this why New Haven activists who fought to change the name of Calhoun College weren’t invited to the renaming ceremony? How often do you see New Haven residents crossing Old Campus, if the University doesn’t currently employ them? We don’t.
Before we can begin to discuss the minutia of how successful Yale’s policy proposals and material solutions are, we have to actually look at what’s going on around us. We rarely bat an eyelash when we see someone asking for money outside of J. Crew or Patagonia.
Sometimes, I’m guilty of ignoring people; sometimes I don’t have the money to give or I’m rushing from one point on campus to another. But that doesn’t mean that we should pat ourselves on the back if we make it back to our residential college without confronting a New Haven resident. At least acknowledge people when they ask for something by saying, “No, sorry.”
We can talk about these issues until we’re blue in the face. Some people will merely look over the details of this article and respond to it by rattling off statistics about how much Yale has done in comparison to other universities.
However, lauding ourselves for how much we’ve done for the community won’t fix the fact that 52 percent of New Haven’s homeless population has chronic substance abuse problems. Lauding ourselves won’t ameliorate food insecurity. It doesn’t matter if Yale put up this sign on College and Chapel or not. What matters is our reaction to it.
Isis Davis-Marks is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .