Yale’s pre-orientation program draws criticism for cleaning up local homeless encampment
FOCUS students were directed to the storage area of a local homeless encampment. Orientation program directors said they would part ways with the New Haven Parks Department.
Yale Daily News
Yale’s FOCUS orientation program changes its partnerships with New Haven after a local site manager asked students to remove belongings from a recently evacuated homeless encampment.
FOCUS on New Haven, one of the five “Camp Yale” orientation programs for incoming freshmen, is centered on community service and activism in the New Haven community. On August 24, a group of FOCUS leaders and freshmen participated in a volunteer project with the New Haven Department of Parks and Trees, focusing on litter collection around the city’s West River. An external project supervisor at the site asked students to throw away clothes and tents belonging to people living in a homeless encampment, which police had ‘forcibly evacuated’ from the area, FOCUS leaders said. .
FOCUS principals said the recent expansion of the University’s orientation programs has forced them to adapt to an unprecedented influx of students, forcing them to form partnerships with different groups than in years previous ones. The Dwight Hall Center for Public Service and Social Justice, which oversees FOCUS, supported the program’s decision to remove the students from the project site where the incident occurred.
“This type of violence – ‘cleaning up after the cops’ and stealing homes and property from homeless people – runs counter to FOCUS values,” wrote program directors Giuliana Duron ’24, Sean Pergola ’24 and Fi Schroth-Duma ’24. in a joint statement to the News. “The fact that FOCUS members have been asked to participate in this violence speaks to the gap between the ideals we stand for and the work we actually do. One thing is clear: FOCUS must change.
In their statement, FOCUS executives told The News that the decision to dump the tents and clothing at West River came as a “complete surprise.” In total, the students remained at the site for a few hours, although Schroth-Douma said she did not know when the supervisor asked the students to begin removing items from the camp.
The New Haven Department of Parks and Trees did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Following the incident, FOCUS canceled its collaboration with the site – which was to last until August 26 – and brought together program officials for a chat. In their immediate response to the incident, FOCUS program officials consulted with a harm reduction organization to compile a list of material resources that could benefit people living in West River.
According to their statement, FOCUS also stressed to program participants the importance of recognizing an encampment as “a home and a tool for survival, not a public nuisance.”
“Dwight Hall staff provided ongoing support to FOCUS directors and leaders throughout the program and supported their decision to close the West River project site,” Dwight Hall executive director Peter Crumlish wrote. in an email to the News. “Over the next few days, staff helped gather information from other community partners to understand the impact of the situation and help students reflect on the experience.
Crumlish told the News that Dwight Hall plans to change the schedule for the program in future years so that workshops, panels and community conversations take place before students arrive at service sites, giving program officials more time to review program details. The program will also consider organizing additional trainings for FOCUS leaders during the spring semester.
The partnership with the Department of Parks and Trees was new, Schroth-Douma said, forged in response to the expansion of the University’s pre-orientation programs last spring.
In March, the Yale College Dean’s Office announced that starting this year, attendance at any of Yale’s orientation programs would become both mandatory and free. The expansion, Yale College Dean Pericles Lewis told the News, “has been going pretty well so far.”
The FOCUS program in particular has grown dramatically in size. Last year, the program had just over 300 students and leaders, Duron told the News. Under the new orientation policy, FOCUS welcomed around 550 students – more than a third of the class of 2026 – and continued to receive new students after the first day of the program on August 23.
Duron said FOCUS took in “overflow” students who didn’t want to attend Camp Yale’s other four programs, all of which offer either outdoor experiences or resources specifically for students of color or college students. international.
Boyd told the News that the YCDO would review the expansion before the start of next year, “surveying all new students, as well as others involved with Camp Yale.”
Duron said the West River incident was the result of university administrators prioritizing the implementation of the new policy over the needs of FOCUS student leaders.
“The Yale College Dean’s Office implemented drastic policy changes without providing sufficient support,” Duron wrote in an email to the News. “What happened at FOCUS is the most visible negative consequence of YCDO’s lack of advanced logistics planning.”
According to Duron, there were not enough community sites in New Haven to accommodate 550 short-term, untrained volunteers. FOCUS began reaching out to organizations outside of the city, as well as forming a “last minute” partnership with the New Haven Department of Parks and Trees.
The program only had the summer, writes Duron, to establish a relationship with community sites. Under ideal conditions, such partnerships would require more than six months of advance planning.
“Had we had enough time to prepare, we would have carefully reviewed our community sites and organized funded, education-based activities to accommodate students without volunteer sites,” Duron told the News. “We didn’t have that time.”
FOCUS was created in 1991.