James Larson

A mixed group of Yale undergrads, graduate students and recent alums have penned an open letter to the Yale administration urging the University to take specific steps to address the COVID-19 crisis in New Haven. 

The letter, which the group is continuing to circulate online in order to obtain more signatures, asks Yale to take three steps: open up unutilized facilities to provide housing and food to anyone who needs it, cease custodial arrests and detentions by the Yale Police Department and stop the collection of rent on Yale-owned properties. Yale spokesperson Karen Peart announced on March 27 that the University was suspending all base rent payments for March and April for over 100 businesses on its properties. On Wednesday, President Peter Salovey responded to the letter, but did not alter any University policy, according to petitioners. 

“I was really trying to encourage people to think about, what’s going to happen in their name and what’s going to happen in our name is that people who are houseless in New Haven are not going to be housed in our dorms, because the University refuses to take liability for those people,” Nika Zarazvand ’20, an original signatory, said in an interview with the News. “They want to look good and they want to give housing to hospital workers and cops and firefighters, but what we call that is housing discrimination. We see exactly how our University is going to kill others by saying that they want what’s best for us.”

The letter lists 28 original signatories from Yale College and the University as a whole. Many of the signatories have connections to local advocacy groups such as the Connecticut Bail Fund, Sex Workers & Allies Network and the Global Health Justice Partnership — all three of which are all cited in the letter. Zarazvand, who flew back to New Haven from her home in Southern California to help organize the response to COVID-19, said students mobilized after a similar student movement petitioned for an academic Universal Pass policy.

As of Monday night, the open letter had gathered 1,232 signatures. The petition also garnered 39 signatures from Yale student groups and local nonprofits like Dwight Hall, the Yale Black Men’s Union and Sunrise New Haven. The letter also praises the Yale Community for New Haven Fund as a first step to supporting the Elm City in an even greater capacity moving forward. 

“President Salovey told the petitioners that as members of Yale, New Haven and neighboring communities support one another and share research results, best practices and strategic planning, it becomes quite clear that our ability to work together is crucial to getting through this crisis. We know that the brunt of the virus’ impact is before us, so we remain focused on our shared work in the months ahead,” Peart told the News in an email. She denied that the University would be committing housing discrimination by only opening its dorms to first responders and healthcare workers.

YPD Chief Ronnell Higgins told the News that the department is “taking steps to reduce the number of contacts” it has with the community, but that its three goals in the ongoing crisis are “life safety, incident management and preservation of property.” Higgins emphasized that YPD officers are “on the frontlines” of the crisis. 

In the event that YPD officers need to be isolated, they will use Yale dorms previously cleared for that purpose. On Friday, Mayor Justin Elicker announced that one New Haven firefighter was self-isolating in a Yale dorm, but that Elicker had no further plans to use Yale dorms after he reached an agreement with the University of New Haven to house first responders in rooms on their West Haven campus. 

As for the city’s houseless population, New Haven has cleared out its shelters and is in the process of moving 300 houseless individuals from shelters into hotels. The plan — which is supported by local and state funding — is in accordance with Gov. Ned Lamont’s March 28 order to reduce the density of shelters across the state. On Monday, a deal between the state and the Best Western of West Haven to use 90 rooms to relieve crowding in local emergency shelters fell through, after West Haven Police Chief Joseph S. Perno asked the hotel to hand over $4,000 per day to handle security costs.

City Hall is also planning to open a 75-bed site for houseless individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 at Career High School in the Hill neighborhood. Elicker previously revealed that he has been talking to local universities — with the exception of Yale — about emergency use of dorms for houseless individuals.

“It’s good that Yale has provided housing for first responders because healthcare professionals do need a place to isolate [as to not] put their families at risk, but we have so many more rooms and dorms that could be opened as well,” said Francesca Maviglia SPH ’20, another original signatory. “It’s sad to see that while this is a good initiative, people who need housing are always sidetracked because it’s not politically convenient to take care of the houseless, it’s just not as sexy as taking care of healthcare providers.”

Moving forward, petitioners are still gathering signatures on the letter and looking into other ways to advocate.

As of 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, New Haven had 336 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths.

Jose Davila currently serves as a Public Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered Yale-New Haven Relations as a staff reporter and served as a Managing Editor. He is a senior in Morse College majoring in Global Affairs.