Yale Daily News

Yale’s FOCUS orientation program is changing its New Haven partnerships after a local site leader instructed students to remove people’s belongings from a recently-cleared homeless encampment.

FOCUS on New Haven, one of the University’s five “Camp Yale” orientation programs for incoming first-year students, is centered around community service and activism in the New Haven community. On Aug. 24, a group of FOCUS leaders and first-year students took part in a volunteer project with the New Haven Department of Parks and Trees, focused on collecting litter around the city’s West River. An external project supervisor at the site instructed students to throw away clothing and tents belonging to people living in a homeless encampment, which police had “forcibly evacuated” from the area, FOCUS leaders said. 

FOCUS directors said the recent expansion of the University’s orientation programs left them scrambling to accommodate an unprecedented influx of students, causing them to form partnerships with different groups than in previous years. The Dwight Hall Center for Public Service and Social Justice, which oversees FOCUS, has supported the program’s decision to pull students from the project site where the incident occurred.

“This sort of violence — ‘cleaning up after the cops’ and theft of unhoused people’s homes and belongings — is antithetical to the values of FOCUS,” program directors Giuliana Duron ’24, Sean Pergola ’24 and Fi Schroth-Douma ’24 wrote in a joint statement to the News. “The fact that FOCUS members were told to participate in this violence speaks to the gap between the ideals we hold and the work we actually do. One thing is clear: FOCUS needs to change.”

In their statement, FOCUS directors told the News that the direction to throw away tents and clothing at the West River came as a “complete surprise.” In total, students were at the site for a few hours, although Schroth-Douma said she did not know at what point the supervisor instructed students to begin removing items from the encampment.

The New Haven Department of Parks and Trees did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Following the incident, FOCUS canceled their collaboration with the site — which was meant to last until Aug. 26 — and gathered the program’s leaders for a conversation. In their immediate response to the incident, FOCUS program leaders consulted with a harm reduction organization to make a list of material resources that might benefit people living at the West River. 

According to their statement, FOCUS also stressed to participants in the program the importance of recognizing an encampment as a “home and a survival tool, not a public nuisance.”  

“Dwight Hall staff has offered continued support to FOCUS directors and leaders throughout the program and supported their decision to shut down the project site at West River,” Dwight Hall executive director Peter Crumlish wrote in an email to the News. “Over the following days, staff helped gather information from other community partners to understand the impact of the situation and to help students reflect on the experience.”

Crumlish told the News that Dwight Hall is considering altering the schedule of the program in future years so that workshops, panels and community conversations are held before students arrive on service sites, giving program leaders additional time to review program details. The program will also consider holding further trainings for FOCUS leaders in the spring semester. 

The partnership with the Department of Parks and Trees was a new one, Schroth-Douma said, forged in response to the University’s expansion of pre-orientation programs last spring.  

In March, the Yale College Dean’s Office announced that beginning this year, participation in one of Yale’s orientation programs would become both mandatory and free of charge. The expansion, Dean of Yale College Pericles Lewis told the News, has “gone pretty well so far.”

The FOCUS program in particular has seen a dramatic expansion in size. Last year, the program consisted of just over 300 students and leaders, Duron told the News. Under the new orientation policy, FOCUS took on about 550 students — over a third of the class of 2026 — and continued to receive new students after the first day of the program on Aug. 23. 

Duron said that FOCUS took on “overflow” students who did not want to participate in the other four Camp Yale programs, all of which offer either outdoor experiences or resources specifically geared towards students of color or international students.

Boyd told the News the YCDO would review the expansion ahead of the start of next year, “surveying all new students, as well as others involved in Camp Yale.”

Duron said that the incident at the West River was a result of University administrators prioritizing the implementation of the new policy over the needs of FOCUS student leaders. 

“The Yale College Dean’s Office implemented drastic changes to orientation without providing sufficient support,” Duron wrote in an email to the News. “What happened at FOCUS is the most visible negative consequence of YCDO’s lack of advanced logistical planning.” 

According to Duron, there were not enough community sites in New Haven to host 550 short-term, untrained volunteers. FOCUS began reaching out to organizations outside of the city, as well as forming a “last-minute” partnership with the New Haven Department of Parks and Trees. 

The program had only the summer, Duron wrote, to build a relationship with community sites. Under ideal conditions, such partnerships would take over six months of advance planning. 

“If given sufficient time to prepare, we would have considered our community sites carefully and arranged for funded, education-based activities in order to accommodate students without a volunteering site,” Duron told the News. “We did not have that time.” 

FOCUS was established in 1991. 

Lucy Hodgman is the editor-in-chief and president of the News. She previously covered student life and the Yale College Council. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Grace Hopper majoring in English.