On Nov. 14, the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, a student organization focused on tackling hunger and homelessness in New Haven, hosted a Zoom panel to discuss policing, incarceration and homelessness.
During the event, panelists spoke about how each of these issues are propagated and interrelated. The array of panelists included Kimberly Hart, a founding member of grassroots advocacy organization Witnesses to Hunger; Elaine Kolb, a disability and diversity rights activist; Hope Metcalf, a lecturer and researcher at Yale Law School and executive director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights; and Alden Woodcock, executive director of EMERGE Connecticut, a nonprofit organization that aids recently incarcerated individuals as they transition back into society. The discussion was moderated by Nellie Conover-Crockett ’22, outreach chair on the YHHAP board.
The panel opened with a discussion of how incarceration and homelessness affect one another, and how to disrupt the cycle.
“I think we need to begin by expanding our concepts of policing and homelessness,” Kolb said. “Most homeless people have very complicated relationships with police, and don’t really need policing, but they are policed. What homeless people need is to be protected and served, but not necessarily by police.”
As a disability activist, Kolb also emphasized the importance of the relationship between poverty and disability. Kolb described the cyclical nature of the two, citing the correlation between poverty and disability and noting the large proportion of unhoused people with disabilities. According to Kolb, “poverty is both the cause and effect of disability.”
Hart then shared her personal experience with being unhoused for two years and five months. While living at a shelter, her son was suspended from school for three days. When the Department of Children and Families, or DCF, was sent by the school to where she was, they threatened to take her son away.
She credits her state of homelessness as one of the reasons why the police and DCF attempted to separate her from her child.
“I was treated very unfairly, I think,” Hart said. She believed DCF thought “because I was in a shelter, I must be a bad parent. I must be a menace to society because I don’t have my own home. That’s how they treated me.”
DCF did not respond to the News’ request for comment.
In his role as the executive director of EMERGE Connecticut, Woodcock helps bring formerly incarcerated people back into society.
At the event, Woodcock highlighted the problematic relationship between homelessness and the prison system. For example, when someone is being considered for parole, they need to have a home address, so it is much more difficult for people experiencing homelessness to be granted parole.
Metcalf agreed that the prison system is fundamentally flawed, but she acknowledged that it is not just police who discriminate against the unhoused.
“Police are not the ultimate source of the problem,” Metcalf said. “Police go out to harass people living in homelessness because someone has asked them to do it.”
Both Metcalf and Woodcock emphasized the criminalization of the unhoused through low-level laws, like loitering laws and laws prohibiting sleeping in public. Participant Elizabeth Roth shared her
experience of how easy it can be to go from having a home one day to being without one the next.
Specifically, Roth explained that while a tenant could have never broken a lease or been late on rent, they can still be subject to the whims of the landlord. She explained that in California, landlords can deliver notices to their tenants requiring them to appear in court within a specific number of days. She noted that individuals who may have trouble reading the document, such as those who are visually impaired, or those who cannot easily leave their houses — such as the elderly or homebound — can be evicted if they do not show up on the specified court date.
“The landlord doesn’t want me there because I started asking for accommodations for my disabilities, which is my right,” Roth, who is blind, said. “I didn’t ask for anything outlandish, but I think they just decided that they don’t want a disabled person there. … The law does not protect you. Legal aid does not protect you. No disability rights group would protect you. The court itself does not protect you.”
Hart emphasized the importance of individuals reaching out to their representatives to advocate for change. According to Hart, legislative change is the only way to create progress.
Kolb took a broader approach to the question of future progress and identified the source of these problems as an inability for people to recognize each other as human beings. Her solution was a plea for all listeners to incorporate inclusion into their lives and approach the world with a more open mindset.
“I invite each and all of you to make it the business of your life to widen your circle, to extend yourself, get to know people who are different than you,” Kolb said. “That, really, is the only answer to any of this.”
YHHAP was founded in 1974 as YHAP, the Yale Hunger Action Project, and changed its name to include the word homelessness in 1987.
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