Elm City Confidential

“One day I was bringing my groceries back to my apartment, and there were a couple of guys in a shooting match outside of the building. … One of the bullets fired at me.” 

“That morning at 10 a.m., I found in that spot her bloody underwear, a gun and jewelry left behind. I took the jewelry, planning to sell it to survive.”

“She said she was pregnant and had fallen in love with the father. She didn’t want to be with me. I had lost her.”

These and other hardboiled lines populate the pages of the latest issue of the Elm City Echo, a journal that features short autobiographical stories and poems from New Haven’s periodically or chronically homeless. Founded by Yale undergraduates in 2011 as part of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, and typically withholding authors’ full names for privacy reasons, the Echo provides glimpses into the lives of people not just on the margins of New Haven but struggling to hold on to its very edge.

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Entries range in tone and purpose. Some are hopeful, some sardonic, some lyrical. There are cautionary tales like Rhonda’s “Say no to drugs,” sharing her experience with crippling drug addiction. Stories like Fernando’s “I walk for myself” are told matter-of-factly by a narrator who seems jaded by so many years of hardship. Others, despite healthy doses of grit, end on notes of hope. Ben R.’s “Unforgettably Loveable” is an expression of gratitude written to a former counselor. “Thank you, Lindsay,” he writes, “for caring and helping me get through that hard time and turning it into the best and happiest time of my life.”

Because most homeless folks don’t spend their time looking for writing opportunities, the Echo’s volunteer editors and writers—usually about 15 a semester—can’t simply wait for submissions to come pouring in. They have to go out and find them.

To that end, they’ve established relationships with three homeless shelters around the city: Martha’s House, Fellowship Place and Columbus House. Abigail Schneider, a junior at Yale, is currently the Echo’s co-editor, sharing the title with fellow undergrad Julia Hamer-Light. Each semester, they and others make about a dozen trips to shelters, where they tell potential contributors about their publication and drum up material.

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Some of the people they speak to already have poems or even drafts of multi-chapter works—from which they might publish excerpts—at the ready. In other cases, the students spend time helping contributors craft narratives from the events of their lives, offering advice about structure and word choice. Where literacy issues come up, a process of repeated dictation, transcription and editing leads to a publishable result.

In most cases, the story takes shape through a collaborative back-and-forth process, until the author is satisfied. Upon completion, individuals are paid $10 for each story, for up to two submissions. (Anything beyond that may still be published, but won’t involve payment.) Contributors to the journal are also given the option to become a vendor. They can buy copies of the Echo for 25 cents apiece, which they can then sell to pedestrians for a $1 cover price, resulting in a 75-cent profit per sale, which is entirely theirs to keep.

An alternative to panhandling, it can be meaningful, gratifying and potentially sustaining work. For its part, the 25-cent wholesale price defrays a piece of the printing costs and instills a greater sense of responsibility on the part of sellers. That said, “I don’t want to overplay it that we’re changing their lives and giving them a livelihood,” Schneider cautions, evincing the clear-headedness with which the project goes about its mission.

Likewise, Schneider and team make a concerted effort to represent the voices of the individuals whose stories it’s publishing, and not the perspectives of the editorial staff. “This is a publication guided by the help of Yale students but it is really done by and for the homeless community,” she says. Echo staffers assist with grammar and organization but try not to censor anything. You’ll find cursing, sex, rape, drug abuse and even critiques of the shelters they stay at—as long as the critique is constructive.

As a result, Schneider says, the Echo “is a great lens into the homeless community and issues of poverty within New Haven.” In some places, editorial influence can be dimly felt—a discernible consistency of voice that doesn’t seem likely otherwise. But for the most part, the pieces do the work they’re supposed to do, providing a revealing line of sight into the lives of the homeless. In the poems, which are almost always penned exclusively by individuals themselves, the variety of voice and style shines through most clearly.

As New Haveners, we may consider ourselves familiar with homelessness—it is, after all, a fairly common sight. We may see bottle-collectors rummaging through refuse bins or figures huddled under blankets at night on the Green. Perhaps it’s easy to make assumptions about them, while knowing very little about their lives.

Elm City Echo, for its part, offers a chance to know a little more, and to assume a little less.

Elm City Echo
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Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik. Photo #1 depicts Carolyn Huckabey. Photo #2 depicts Abigail Schneider.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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