According to Bob, New Haven is the best city in the United States. “People come here from all over the United States just to sit on the Green.” Wearing a loose white tank, sporting a gray beard, and casually drinking beer out of a brown paper bag, he refuses my offer of a banana. “I just had one,” he says.

Walking on the Green on a beautiful Friday afternoon, I was presented with two sides of the same story. Before meeting Bob, I had met another homeless man, also coincidentally named Bob. Sitting on the bench near Center Church, picking at his toes as his shopping cart full of valuables sat close by, I asked him what he thought of homelessness in New Haven.

“It’s getting better. The programs are working. I think there are less people on the Green than two years ago.” He said that a lot of people were getting housing, and that occasionally, policemen ask him to move for loitering, but it is okay because “I’m not supposed to be there anyway.”

Having just come back from City Hall with a 104 page packet entirely full of homelessness resources in my hand, these encounters inspired in me a renewed faith in government and government programs. Maybe community policing and community-centered programs could work. But my encounters with the folks on the next bench over told a different story.

“It’s very hard,” a thin black woman in a red hoodie told me, taking the banana I offered her but declining to give her name. “It rained yesterday, and that was very hard.” I asked her if she could go to a shelter. She told me that shelters, while they offer a place to sleep at night, must be vacated by 7:30 a.m. Bedbugs are everywhere, and there is a lot of stealing–homeless people from each other and sometimes even shelter employees from the homeless people. Although he has only been in New Haven since May, Bob has had his things stolen from him eleven times.

Yale students are told from the beginning of their time on campus to be wary of the Green, especially at night. During the film shown during Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins’ safety introduction to freshmen, an angry old man in a suit pops out of random places lamenting the lack of alertness Yale students have for both their valuables and their surroundings. The not-so-subtle implication of the video is that Yale students should be wary of the New Haven outside Yale’s gates, and a three yard walk from Old Campus reveals the jarring dichotomy between the opulent University and the town park, where students rarely venture.

During Yale freshman move-in day, the New Haven Police moved all the homeless people off the Green, preventing many homeless from reaching soup kitchens. Yale President Peter Salovey and the Office of New Haven and State Affairs have denied that this is a Yale-approved policy. However, the city seems to be moving toward a less tolerant policy toward the homeless, with the increase of community policing and the possible beginning of a new policy that would push homeless people out of New Haven. There are about 556 chronically homeless people total in the city of New Haven, of which 22% are children in families and 52% have a history of substance abuse. Yale and the Elm City are inextricably connected, and recently New Haven has been trying to pass ordinances that would criminalize the status of being homeless.

In 2014, an Open Space Ordinance was proposed that would put opening and closing hours on all the parks in New Haven, including the Green. The ordinance would create a permit system for all events on parks, and limit the construction of “temporary structures and shelters.” Corporate Counsel Victor Bolden, the attorney designated to give legal advice to the Board of Alders and a prominent supporter of the Open Space Ordinance, pushed for a section in the ordinance that would make it illegal for anyone to stay on the Green after 10 p.m., effectively preventing the homeless from staying and sleeping on the Green.

The ordinance was given a “leave to withdraw,” the polite way of saying it was voted down, due to concerns it would have negative consequences for the homeless. These concerns were raised after considerable outrage from the community and organizations that help the homeless, including a petition that garnered five hundred signatures. However, renewed efforts have tried to bring back the ordinance recently, due to the perceived decline of the Green.

Each morning, piles of needles, human feces, and urine are found around the area surrounding Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green. In September, Mayor Toni Harp visited the Green and was “appalled by the condition,” according to Rev. Dr. Luk De Volder.  The Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green spends a significant amount of money each year trying to clean up the messes. But rather than support the Open Space Ordinance, church members have been in the process of writing a letter to Mayor Harp asking her to protect the homeless people on the Green.  They also have also organized several community “Clean up the Green” events in an effort to beautify the space.

Mark Colville of La Amistad Catholic Worker, who was crucial to the push back against the ordinance in 2014, is worried about the renewed interest in the ordinance.

“We hold the same position from last time,” he told me. “The ordinance criminalizes the status of being poor. It won’t solve homelessness and also creates unfair racial and economic profiling.”  Colville believes that the poor and homeless are not to blame for Trinity Church’s troubles on the Green, but the blame lies with the out-of-towners that come every weekend to go to New Haven’s night clubs. He also expressed frustration at how unresponsive the Harp administration has been toward the homeless in New Haven. During discussions with the administration, he was told that the Mayor did not have an answer to the question of homelessness, and that administration officials brushed the matter off as a regional problem that was not New Haven’s responsibility to solve. The mayoral department that oversees most of the homeless rehabilitation and reintegration programs declined to comment.

Bureaucracy also complicates things for many of the sitters on the Green by preventing them from getting housing. The Captain, an older man with a long white beard and a baseball cap that makes him resemble the famed Captain Phillips, has applied multiple times for disability due to his arthritic leg, and has been rejected each time. But he has a lawyer now, and he hopes that the lawyer finally will help him to get his disability checks; he finds it harder and harder to walk the three miles every day from the shelter to the Green with his bad foot.

After Police Chief Dean Esserman took office four years ago, walking beats were brought back as part of a new focus on “community policing,” intended to foster better relationships between the officers and the communities they serve. However, the program has not worked out so well for homeless people in the communities. Policemen arbitrarily decide to apply laws to the homeless people on the Green and in the surrounding shops. When Bob, the first Bob, tried to go to the bathroom at Starbucks, he was prevented by a police officer, as all of the shops in downtown New Haven are technically for customers only.

When I talked to him, Bob refused to be identified because he is afraid of being arrested by the New Haven Police. He told me that he was thrown on the ground by a police officer  and handcuffed, only for looking through the trash to find empty bottles to sell. Just that morning, he had almost been arrested for theft – he had an unmarked shopping cart that had been given to him. Bob feels discriminated against, and thinks that the arbitrary application of laws is due to an implicit bias against the homeless in the city.

It’s not just the police. Bob, a veteran, has had his things stolen from him eleven times within the past four months, including his ID. While he sleeps on the Green, he is often woken up forcefully by biker gangs. He showed me gruesome scars on his head from the last beating.

Bob is extremely unhappy with the dehumanization of homeless people and is tired of people who blame him for his homelessness. While drugs and alcohol contribute to the homeless problem, Bob is not addicted to drugs. Another homeless man I met on the Green that day, Kent Goosdy, is homeless because his 401k was stolen from him by irresponsible and greedy investors. Neither Bob nor Kent is from Connecticut. They both came to New Haven due to the Green’s lack of opening and closing hours, a beneficial policy for the homeless who often have nowhere else to sleep.

The decrease in homeless people on the Green in the past two years may not be due to helpful city projects, but instead due to an increase in contempt for the homeless that pushes them out of the city. However, there are ways to challenge the dehumanization of the homeless, starting from within the ivory tower itself.

“It would be great if Yale students would feel comfortable enough to just have picnics on the Green, fly kites, and talk to us.” Kent told me. “Yale students have been the kindest to me, always helping me out and bringing me food and clothing.” He also brought up the ideas of holding lectures or discussions where homeless people could talk about their experiences and give Yale students first-hand accounts of the effects of economic and social inequality.

“You are the younger generation that can help make changes in the system,” Kent concluded. “Never forget that.”

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