Ashton Gores

On a chilly Friday morning, homeless New Haveners flooded into Sunrise Café at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James for free breakfast, a foot wash and a pair of new shoes.

In preparation for this week’s National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, the New Haven Poverty Alleviation Through Washing Soles Project partnered with Sunrise Café and nonprofit Soles4Souls to provide free shoes and a complimentary foot washing on Nov 10. Roughly 25 Yalies volunteered at the café, giving away nearly 200 pairs of socks and shoes and washing around 90 pairs of feet.

“I want this to be an organization to promote Yale students to work directly with the neediest of our local community and to inspire action to serve, independent of any religious or spiritual connection, from some of the world’s brightest young minds,” said New Haven PAWS Project Director Ashton Gores SPH ’18.

Gores said she thought of the idea on a rainy July weekend as she staffed Loaves & Fishes — a food pantry and clothing closet that works alongside the student-run Neighborhood Health Project’s hypertension and glucose screening clinic.

Fifteen minutes before the clinic closed, a man name Joseph hobbled into the station, wheezing and barely able to breathe, said Gores. Since the clinic had no attending physicians that day, the group convinced him to go to the emergency room. But first, staff at the clinic took a look at his feet.

“His socks were drenched from sleeping in the bus stops during a summer downpour, and his shoes that he had been given were too large and rubbing terribly and creating all sorts of irritation,” said Gores. “I took off his shoes, and his socks. His feet were ripe with infection and raw from his socks and shoes. He likely had not taken his shoes off for weeks.”

After drying his feet and putting on a new pair of socks, he went to the hospital, though Gores, feeling heartbroken, knew she had to do something more to help the thousands of homeless people without proper footwear. That’s when she decided to meet with Yale Health Director Paul Genecin and Sten Vermund, the dean of the School of Public Health, which led Gores to contact Souls4Souls, a Nashville-based global shoes non-profit organization. Soles4Souls agreed to provide brand new shoes for last Friday’s event, Gores said. She also credited the Yale Hunger & Homelessness Action Project, Athletes in Action and other student organizations for their help in publicizing the event.

Volunteers and organizers reflected on the most memorable moments of the event.

“I think that men particularly in the community trusted students to do this,” said Ellen Gabriel, the Sunrise Café program director. “Having their feet washed is a foreign thing to them and it’s certainly a need that the community has. The number of people who came in and the respect that they showed to the students showed how grateful they were.”

Sonia Rocha NUR ’19 said the most rewarding part of the event was helping restore the dignity of the homeless. For Trisha Ramsdell SPH ’19, making a mark on someone else’s day is the most rewarding part of washing people’s feet.

“Everyone has a bad morning, and I’m sure that if you’re a homeless person you’re more prone to being in a less happy state,” said Ramsdell. “This [event] shows that Yale students care about New Haven residents.”

Still, Ramsdell said that, while she couldn’t speak for the undergraduate population, she wished some of her peers at the Yale School of Public Health focused less on just “getting an education at a great university” and more on reaching out to the homeless and other impoverished populations in New Haven.

Similarly, Rocha said that, although she would love to volunteer for more projects to help the homeless, such as the New Haven PAWS Project, she has rarely heard about similar opportunities. Rocha said that she was not sure whether the issue is a lack of opportunities or of education about community service projects.

Because of the lack of publicity surrounding student-run homelessness relief events, Gabriel said, the University community often comes under fire for not doing enough to help the community. But people do not appreciate what Yale students do for the community, she said

“There have been easily over a thousand Yale students that have come through [Sunrise Café]. Sometimes it’s a one-time opportunity, sometimes it’s a regular thing,” she said. “These students are how we have survived.”

According to the United States Census Bureau, over half a million people experienced homelessness in 2016.

Kiddest Sinke | kiddest.sinke@yale.edu