Spare a little change?” Walking down Broadway, across Chapel or along York, I’m sure we’ve all heard this line before. Panhandling is one of the most visible features of food, housing and economic insecurity that we see in our daily lives as Yale students, and it’s easy to see the panhandler as the face we associate with homelessness. It’s easy to care in the moment but forget afterwards. It’s easy to believe that the crux of the issue is just a lack of money.
But food and housing insecurity goes far beyond money problems and the faces we see on the streets every day. The issues of hunger and homelessness touch upon an incredible number of systemic problems. For example, economic justice: the median household income in New Haven is thousands of dollars lower than the cost of “affordable housing.” Family justice is another: domestic violence is a large contributor to women and children landing in shelters. There’s environmental justice: cheap and affordable food is often fast food with a high carbon footprint. Urban planning: gentrification causes mass displacement of low-income communities. Education: children who do not complete high school are three times more likely to experience homelessness. Mental health: 45 percent of individuals experiencing homelessness have also experienced mental illness. Race and ethnicity: racial minorities are a larger proportion of the homeless population than they are of the general population. Substance addiction: addiction is often a cause and an exacerbating factor in homelessness. Prison and criminal records: criminal records and a lack of transitioning resources often lead to unemployment and homelessness. And these are just the tip of the iceberg.
As a part of the New Haven community, we need to attack such an overwhelming problem on all fronts. Direct service is necessary to provide immediate relief and help people regain their footing. Advocacy is necessary to address the systemic problems causing this crisis. We all have the ability to join in on existing efforts — we all have a pair of hands, a voice, marketing skills and networks, and we can mobilize. New Haven has many nonprofit groups that perform important work for the community, and it is not difficult to get involved.
But first, we must have the correct attitude. “New Haven is so unsafe.” “I feel scared walking through the Green because of the homeless people staring at me.” These phrases and others are blatantly discriminatory and reflect the stigma that those labeled as “homeless” face. Pick up a copy of the Elm City Echo, written by those experiencing homelessness, and you will find that the writers use words like “invisible” and “alienating” to describe their experiences. But keep reading and you will realize that they are incredibly tough and hopeful people with stories to tell and emotions to share.
The stigma of homelessness is perpetuated by the fact that we have such limited interactions and conversations with those who do not always have a roof over their head. If we take a moment to talk, to learn, to empathize, we can come a long way. We are not here to be powerful saviors of those who desperately need our help. We are here to be respectful neighbors and friends — standing in solidarity, giving, receiving and lending a hand when we can because we care.
So what can we do? We can start by being aware and respectful. Look up when you’re walking, read the Independent, have empathy and don’t perpetuate the stigma. We can have conversations, engage locally and include New Haven in our thoughts, conversations and plans. Ask the important questions. What is our role and impact in the city? How can we show solidarity? Spread awareness about local issues.
And if we have the ability to do more, we volunteer, we reach out to nonprofits, we donate our time, skills and labor, and in the process, we receive. We learn through engagement because there is so much this city and its people can teach us. We can show that as Yalies, we care about New Haven.
RENEE TUNG is a junior in Ezra Stiles College and the co-director of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .