Too many times, Winfield Davis has seen a panhandler hit the button requesting a chance to cross at the corner of North Frontage Road and Chapel Street and then take advantage of the few moments of stopped traffic to go car-to-car and ask people for money. The problem is not that they are asking for money, he said, it’s that they may not actually need it.
“We have a professional panhandling population in downtown New Haven,” said Davis, executive director of Town Green Special Services District. “This is a profession for a lot of folks and people who are downtown will see these people quite frequently.”
Too often, he said, there’s a perception that when someone is panhandling, that means they are homeless. But from his observations and talking with panhandlers, that’s not always the case, he said. “If we are serious about ending homelessness we need to understand the difference between those who are doing this professionally and preying on people but have a place to go at night and those who are actually homeless,” Davis said. “The difference is really hard for people to understand.”
Many times, people panhandling in New Haven are doing so to feed an addiction, said Assistant Chief Otoniel Reyes of the New Haven Police Department. Reyes added that this type of panhandling impacts the quality of life in neighborhoods and downtown for other city residents.
“There’s an issue of some (panhandlers) being overly aggressive,” he said.
Panhandling is legal in New Haven, though it is prohibited in other Connecticut cities. Davis said it’s estimated that panhandlers can make more than $100 a day in the city.
“If you think about panhandling as a market, a market will grow if you purchase from it,” said John Bradley, executive director of Liberty Community Services, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness for people with disabilities such as HIV, mental illness and addiction in Greater New Haven. “It helps to give people income, but it doesn’t help solve the problem of homelessness.”
Bradley said he believes there is a spectrum of panhandlers in New Haven, and while many likely are in desperate need, others are not.
At Christian Community Action in the Hill neighborhood, the Rev. Bonita Grubbs said she supports other solutions to help fight homelessness, rather than giving money to panhandlers.
“I think that there are deeper issues that organizations can do to help people — beyond the money — move to greater self-sufficiency,” said Grubbs, executive director of the organization that mainly serves homeless families. “That includes determining their longer-term needs, connecting them with supportive services and housing them, if they need it.”
Grubbs said she believes panhandling is not a popular way to try to earn income for homeless families, and most CCA clients are families.
But Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said people should not be quick to judge the adults working the streets for income, because there are fewer resources available statewide for single adults.
“We should remember that available assistance, especially for single adults without children, is limited in Connecticut,” Bates said. “There are a variety of reasons someone — homeless or struggling to maintain housing — might ask for spare change. Let’s not imagine that we can know a person’s situation from the outside.”
“Let’s re-double our efforts to help — and not judge,” she added.
Based on the most recent data available from the CCEH annual Point in Time Count this year, 403 of the 625 homeless people counted in New Haven on a single night in January were single adults. There were 357 single adults counted in New Haven during the Point in Time Count in 2015.
Bates did praise New Haven service providers for their hard work in providing dozens of services to homeless people citywide every day.
“These nonprofit providers in New Haven provide our most basic safety net, and they are working harder than ever before in a coordinated effort to respond to every case of homelessness,” Bates said. “This work, and the providers behind it operating every day on thin budgets, deserve our most generous support — including through donations.”
Both Davis and Bradley agree that the city has a robust number of services available for people who are experiencing homelessness, and the presence of many panhandlers helps create a sense that the homelessness situation in New Haven is more dire than it really is. Davis also condemned aggressive panhandling techniques such as targeting couples, mothers with strollers, or people getting in or out of their cars.
“To the community, it looks like New Haven has a significant homeless problem,” Davis said. “Panhandlers give homeless people a bad reputation.”
With free meal programs available throughout the city, Bradley said he finds it hard to believe that anyone could be hungry in New Haven.
“New Haven is very generous,” Bradley said. “There are places people can go to get food. … In general, it feels like we are really good at feeding people.”
A listing of free meals available for the public on the city website shows that there are free meals available, most times in multiple locations, three times a day, each day of the week. Even regarding shelter, Bradley said there are services there if people seek them. With several organizations, including New Reach, Christian Community Action and Columbus House providing shelter beds, he said people may not be able to have a bed immediately, but they will very quickly.
“We don’t have many people sleeping outside who prefer to sleep inside,” Bradley said. “If someone wants to find shelter, they can find a bed rather quickly.” “The presence of public homelessness and panhandling sends a different message that things are out of control and there are many desperate people,” Bradley added.
To help funnel money to service providers, the Town Green Special Services District will set up pay stations in New Haven for people to donate money to combat homelessness, Davis said. The initiative is called “Give Change to Make Change.”
“These programs are not trying to curb anybody’s rights and we are not trying to make things harder for the homeless,” Davis said. “But, there are responsible ways to give.”
With the number of services available, he said, there are other options to seek help with housing and food rather than asking for money on the street.
“We are not looking to further criminalize or condemn the condition of homelessness,” Davis said. “We are working diligently to help that population.”
The article appeared in New Haven Register, 12-12-16, By Anna Bisaro |