Feet to the Fire: Local Activists Challenge New Haven Green Ordinance Proposal

burning ordinance

While a controversial ordinance closing the New Haven Green at 10 p.m.-a condition perceived as a move to prevent members of the city’s homeless population from sleeping in the last park that is open after dark-and requiring a permit for political demonstrations and other events, is sitting at the Board of Alderman Legislation Committee’s table, members of the Amistad Catholic Worker House on Rosette street and other local activists have sent a message loud and clear from theirs.

As a group of reporters and cameraman assembled around the table in the jammed dining room looked on, Amistad Catholic Worker Member Sarah Raven put it as bluntly as one can-she held up a copy of the four page ordinance-a double sided packet-lit it on fire, and held up the burning document as the press scrambled to snap pictures.

“Some of the people we break bread with happen to be homeless,” Raven said during the press conference, which was held in a discussion-style format in order to-as Amistad Catholic Worker Member Gregory Williams puts it-ensure a “diverse discussion” on the issue. “The city is seeking to take away the last refuge of some of our friends.”

Leonard Branch is one of those friends. A student at Gateway Community College, he’s been fortunate enough to be able to stay at one of the city’s overflow shelters, but he knows that the proposal isn’t making it any easier for those left to scour the streets for a safe resting place for the night.

“We have a homeless community that is forced to live outside,” Branch said. “If we’re going to let [someone’s] budget determine their status, we’re not being humane.”

For a homeless population that is already dealing with shelter overcrowding, the list of places to find a bed and warmth is getting thin. While the end of the colder months will make the elements more bearable, it also signals the closing of the city’s overflow shelters. This is typically the time when those with nowhere else to sleep migrate to the city’s upper green, activists said.

Kenneth Driffer is an independent outreach worker who is often seen making rounds in the park at the crack of dawn offering everything from blankets and food to information pertaining to services, a roof, or anything else the city’s most vulnerable people might need. He estimates that around 10 people will occupy the green on a typical night, with that number tripling with more favorable temperatures.

“The reason people sleep on the green is because they feel that’s where they are safest,” Driffer said during the discussion. “Being homeless is not a crime. People who punish people for being homeless, they are the criminals.”

The ordinance is about more than just a fine for crashing on a park bench, said Ina Staklo, an activist with Women Organize to Resist and Defend (WORD). It is just one more measure that punishes the victims of a political and economic system that has-with the cutting of food stamp and unemployment benefits, amongst other things-exacerbated a condition of poverty while advancing the special interests of society’s most affluent members, she said.

“People have been forced into abject poverty due to cuts to programs that are crucial,” Staklo said. “And here in New Haven we see gentrification and the pushing out of poorer people, and what’s the city’s response? To criminalize the homeless people, and the people that stand up for the rights of the poor and working people.”

The latter manifested in the protest encampment Occupy New Haven, which took place from October of 2011 until April 2012, and ANSWER Coalition activist Norm Clement suggested that the ordinance is being pushed in order to prevent similar actions in the future.

Part of the legislation prohibits “any building or structure for temporary use” without a written permit that cannot stretch for longer than 30 consecutive days.

One reporter asked how closing the Green at night is any different than what has been the norm for other parks in the city. The Green has always been “a public commons” for “spontaneous political activity” and doing away with the rule for its counterparts would be a good long term goal, activists said.

“We want it to be legal to sleep in every park in this city,” Williams said. “We’re fighting to keep one of the last safe havens, but in the long run we need a homeless bill of rights, that includes the right to eat, sleep, and be in public space.”

But for now, they’ll focus on ramping up pressure on the Board of Alderman when the item is brought up for discussion in upcoming meetings, Williams said. He’s also asking those opposed to the ordinance to call their Alderperson and sign a petition being circulated.

“We will struggle both inside and outside of Council Chambers,” he said. “Democracy works some of the time, and sometimes it works because you push it.”

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