Meeting New Haven’s Homeless Population

Michaël Rubens is a 2017-2018 Belgian Fulbright student researcher to Yale University. A doctoral student at KU Leuven, his research focuses on productivity analysis and firm dynamics. Below, Michaël discusses his experience volunteering in the town of New Haven, Connecticut.

Dark clouds obscure New Haven’s central square, quite aptly named ‘the Green’. The streets are desolate, as most prefer the coziness and warmth of a coffee shop to the pouring rain. Suddenly, a drum beat resounds over the square. Soft at first, it slowly swells into an enthralling rhythm. For about a second, I picture myself in a primeval forest, surrounded by colorful birds and waiting for an ancient ritual to happen. My daydream quickly shatters, as I feel the icy rain again. But the drums do confer an important signal: the entire homeless population of the Green approaches this source of music. A gathering is to take place, during which volunteers distribute soup, sandwiches and coffee. This actually happens every Sunday afternoon, even under the scorching sun or during snowy blizzards.

A toothless smile greets me in exchange of a cup of coffee. A mother strolls by with her three-years old son, whose vivid eyes I briefly cross. A older man in a training suit asks me a question, probably about the coffee, but non hablo español, at least not yet. Once every few weeks, I volunteer at this food kitchen. Let me share three thoughts which came to mind while doing so.

First, being a visiting researcher at Yale, I meet fascinating people every day. I am sincerely grateful for them, and feel very privileged to be here. At the same time, however, university life quickly becomes a comfortable bubble, which is isolated from the ‘real’ world. A quick walk through New Haven reveals how deep poverty and incredible wealth coexist here in an almost surreal manner. Helping with a food kitchen will maybe not change that, but it at least enables to interact with the homeless population beyond the usual panhandling rejection.

Secondly, Americans seem to attribute more importance to volunteering and individual initiative than back in Belgium. We Europeans sometimes accuse Americans being insensitive to poverty (and there still are Americans that think we are all communists). On the contrary, most people I met here seem to genuinely care about their less fortunate fellow citizens. They sometimes just prefer helping the poor directly instead of delegating this task to the government. It is not necessary to agree with this vision, but I think it is important to empathize and understand why people think this way.

Thirdly, organized religion still plays a very different role in the US compared to Western Europe. Most caritative initiatives here stem from churches, even in secularized New England. Again, this is sometimes met with suspicion by Europeans, as if helping the poor is mainly a tool to proselytize. While the soup kitchen was preceded by a short religious service, it was made very clear that any help was unconditional, and attendance to the service does not affect benefits in any sense. In fact, most people show up just for lunch, and that’s perfectly fine. Fun fact: the entire initiative is led by Rev. Luk De Volder, a priest in a landmark New Haven church, and … a Belgian!

To sum up, the Fulbright spirit is to promote mutual understanding between the USA and partner countries. I can testify that this is not just a hollow catch phrase: spending a year abroad with Fulbright is much more than a research stay: it is a source of cultural enrichment and exchange. For me, volunteering has played – and continues to play – a crucial role in this process!

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.