Yesterday, the Housing Not Jails march saw a hundred strong take the streets of New Haven. Chanting “Tax Yale, housing not jail” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down,” the participants — led for the homeless, by the homeless — gave voice to a population that our campus often struggles to hear. As institutional injustices against the homeless continue to build, Yale students have an increasing responsibility to the homeless community.
Jack (name changed for privacy) is a grizzled man in a black cap. Sometimes you can find him find leaning against a tree on the College Street side of the New Haven Green. This afternoon, he’s dozing off, but he jerks awake with a start when he sees people approaching. Jack is suspicious. A couple weeks ago he had three blankets, but they had been stolen when he wasn’t paying attention. Without protection from the chill, he will probably spend tonight sleeping tight against the Center Church on the Green, hoping that the brick walls will protect him from the wind.
“Scumbags out here will steal your dirty underwear,” he says as he hawks and spits. “Stealing a homeless person’s blanket. Doesn’t get lower than that.”
Behind Jack, the Blue Line pulls into Phelps Gate, and a busload of first years unloads. Jack doesn’t turn. He’s on his feet now, hugging his backpack close to his chest. His face is wrinkled, skin clinging tightly to the contours of his jaw. The only teeth he has left are near the back of his mouth. His forehead is marred by a bright pink rash that’s beginning to creep down his temple.
Jack got his skin rash while walking through a patch of overgrown bushes — poison oak, he surmised, but perhaps not. He was covered by state-funded medical insurance, and visited Yale New Haven Hospital for treatment. The hospital turned him away telling him that the issue would resolve itself. When it didn’t, Jack visited again. And again. And again. Jack went to Yale New Haven Hospital a total of 18 times and never received treatment.
“People look down at you,” he said. “Even with medical insurance. They look down at you.”
Jack’s experience with institutional mistreatment is echoed across the Green and throughout the city’s homeless and formerly homeless population. Milt, another man on the Green, told me that the city was intentionally removing benches so that the homeless could not sleep comfortably and that certain policemen provoke him by constantly taking his photo when he is doing nothing wrong. Last December, the city tore down an encampment in East Rock that housed 18 people after giving them only one week of warning.
Yale’s role in this issue is often debated. Jack finds Yale elitist and condescending, but others express gratitude for what Yale offers — a generous student body, funding support for a variety of community programs and humanitarian nonprofits like the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project and the Connecticut Bail Fund.
“Yale contributes in a special way and a harmful way,” said Jesse Hardy, the president of Jesse’s Homeless Outreach Projects, a homeless outreach organization in New Haven. “They have a lot to offer. But they could do a lot better.”
Amidst rising concerns over the criminalization of homelessness in New Haven, however, it’s time to “do better.” We live in a city that is cracking down on panhandlers through a campaign that instructs residents to “say “NO” to requests for money and claims that “panhandlers are not really homeless.” We live in an economy that has driven multimillion-dollar cuts for the Homeless Prevention and Response Fund and the Affordable Housing Program. We live in a state where four cities have banned the act of simply sleeping on benches in parks. We live in a moment that necessitates so much more than patting ourselves on the back for doing our best.
New Haven’s struggle with homelessness is littered with destroyed encampments, dubious arrests and questionable ordinances. We each have an obligation to learn about the communities experiencing homelessness and to act on their behalf. After all, it doesn’t take more than a walk through the Green to realize that our neighbors do not reside only in well-heated suites.
Mrinal Kumar is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .