Off-duty New Haven firefighters rallied Thursday – as they do every day – to serve the people. But this was a different type of service.
“We’re glad to go to work with them delivering meals,” said Patrick Cannon, vice president of New Haven Fire Department Local 825.
The partnership was with Wahlburgers.
“It’s important every day that we understand what we’re all going through, but especially the hard-hit communities in New Haven,” Cannon said.
Starting at Varick Memorial AME Zion Church, crews traced around the city handing out meals to people in struggling communities, now facing two and a half months into the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Today we are saying we just want to give a little bit of hope. We want you to know that you are not forgotten,” said Shawn Wooden, Connecticut state treasurer.
Wooden says partnerships with Crescent Capital and Wahlburgers helped the event come together. But he says it only shines the light on communities that have suffered long before the pandemic.
“We’re going to shape policies that address the systemic needs of communities that have been underserved for decade after decade after decade,” said Wooden
For Vicky Green, the meals highlight some of the unity she’s seen in the neighborhood in the last 10 weeks.
“I’m really, really happy,” said Vicky Green, who lives nearby. “I’m a great advocate for change though, and I’m really happy that things are starting to change and we’re starting to get better."
They came together to discuss those changes and address ongoing needs in New Haven. Pastor Kelcy G. L. Steele pointed out systemic issues in New Haven mirror problems for communities of color nationwide. He noted George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minnesota, was a man similar to men and women in New Haven.
Steele made reference to the struggles Floyd may have had at a time when there’s little food and little work, similar to the people in New Haven he serves.
“Today we’re not just giving out hamburgers, we’re giving out hope because George Floyd could have been me. George Floyd could have been you,” said Steele.
While leaders gathered together to lift spirits, they raised a call for help to fix socioeconomic disparities in the city.
“We’re calling on Yale New Haven Hospital and Yale University and all the large employers to actually put in now,” said Rev. Scott Marks of New Haven Rising.
The request for more financial support follows Mayor Justin Elicker’s budget push in March, when the city worked to fill a $45 million dollar spending gap. Elicker has pointed out that 55 percent of the city is tax-exempt.
Both the hospital and university have responded, outlining their support of community programs, and detailing a combined $26 million in voluntary payments and property tax payments taxes.
In a statement, the university said:
“…[the] $12 million voluntary payment in the most recent fiscal year was the highest from a university to its hometown anywhere in the United States. In that same year, we paid $5 million in property taxes on our non-academic properties (making us the city’s third-highest taxpayer). We are dedicated to continue standing united with and working in concert with New Haven.”
Vin Petrini, Yale New Haven Health senior vice president of public affairs, said they are the largest taxpayer in Connecticut. Petrini says they’ve paid $300 million overall in provider taxes to the state of Connecticut, adding they sent a $3 million voluntary payment to New Haven last week.
“There’s a conversation to be had with public officials. I really respect where the mayor and board of alders are coming from, but we need to think about this in a way that makes sense for everyone,” said Petrini.
Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers acknowledged the work both the hospital and the university contribute to New Haven through programs like New Haven Promise and support to ConnCAT. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital partnered with the city for the latest test site at the former Strong School, and the university established the Community Fund of New Haven, among other efforts.
Walker-Myers says this year’s budget is the toughest they’ve had to pass, which included defunding vacant positions in the fire and police departments, cutting funds to the Board of Education, and imposing a tax increase. She, like many onsite Thursday, says there’s much more work to do.
“Yes, they do do some great things for our city, but they can afford to and it’s not enough,” said Walker-Myers. “And we’re putting you on notice that we’re getting plenty of people involved and organized and we will not stop.”