Cleaning House

In his first few days as a summer subletter at Sigma Phi Epsilon (“SigEp”), Nick Coman awoke to a harsh banging at the fraternity’s back door. “I want your cans,” a voice called. “And your house looks like shit.” The voice belonged to Kenny Jackson, a homeless man and fixture of the High Street community. Lanky and emaciated after years of cocaine abuse, Jackson had grown accustomed to cleaning up fraternity houses for cash. Coman opened the door and launched into a two-month relationship with the homeless of High Street.

“Kenny must have been used to being there and having some sort of relationship,” Coman reasoned, after being stunned by Jackson’s smooth approach. This arrangement had, in fact, existed since SigEp bought its new home at 31 High Street in 2006. The fraternity’s leaders lauded the purchase, with former Vice-President of Member Development Michael Rucker claiming in February of 2006, “A house is important because we want to maintain an image that is not a crazy-party fraternity but is still a bit more gentlemanly.” A house may be important, but cleaning it is still more so-and, evidently, gentlemen don’t clean. SigEp’s former president began hiring the homeless just months after the house-warming.

Current SigEp President Michael Schwartzman downplays the relationship and insists that “it’s never been much of an issue.” According to SigEp House Manager Larry Wise, the real problem stems from the house’s property manager, Bob Esposito, who pays three or four homeless people for labor on a regular basis. Schwartzman maintains that he has “no knowledge of Bob’s involvement with homeless people.” Esposito, however, readily admits to his employment of the homeless community. Although SigEp’s national headquarters commissioned him to keep the property safe, Esposito explains, “Yeah, I hire them. Kenny’s done cleaning for us-when garbage was slimed everywhere and no one wanted to touch it, Kenny would grab a trashcan and do it. I’d give him ten or twenty dollars, no problem.”

Esposito’s implicit claim is a common one: if these are jobs no one wants, and the homeless need the money and are willing, is it wrong? Judging from the actions of other fraternities, the answer seems to be no. SigEp’s practices are not unique. Next door, at Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Jackson and a group of his friends, also homeless, spent the night of July 19th raving in the basement, taking swigs from half-empty beer cans and assuring the brothers, “If you leave your beer cans empty, I’ll break the legs of anyone you want with a baseball bat.”

SAE President Stephen Sherrill flatly denies these stories and rests firm on his conviction that, “We just haven’t had an issue with it. We keep our doors locked like anyone else.” In response to allegations that SAE is installing a new door because of homeless vandalism, Sherrill had no comment.

To the homeless of New Haven, cleaning up fraternities is nothing new. Joe Comfort, a 55-year-old street legend who assumes an air of authority when speaking about everything from crack habits to vaults of stolen goods, dismisses Jackson’s involvement with SigEp as amateur employment and shares his personal story of fraternity servitude. According to Comfort, he began cleaning Sigma Nu about four years ago in exchange for a few dollars every now and then. Although current Sigma Nu President Josh Lederman asserts that he has heard nothing of the fraternity’s history of homeless hiring, Comfort says that he eventually moved into the house for several months as a full-time servant to the brothers. “I cooked whatever they wanted. I fixed their doors, dishwasher, windows, and everything.” Though he enjoyed the incessant parties, Comfort found himself performing menial tasks for ungrateful brothers. “I cleaned up when they fucked up,” he sighs. “They’d be playing beer pong and they’d puke in the drains, and I’d have to clean that shit up and wouldn’t get a fucking quarter.”

Comfort says his stint at Sigma Nu fell apart during one Parents’ Weekend. Pleased with himself after building a wall to hide the brothers’ kegs from their parents, Comfort stumbled in front of “a bunch of rich white daddies.” According to Comfort, one father turned to his son and asked, “Hey boys, who’s this nigger?” After the brothers explained that Comfort helped out and was not a member of the Yale community, the father turned away from Comfort and told his son, “Get this nigger out of here.” The current SigNu president declined comment.

Back at SigEp, brothers and subletters watched as Jackson grew more attached to the building. According to Coman, Kenny soon became “the running joke of the house.” In fact, in weekly e-mails rehasing the hazy details of the weekend’s parties, Jackson was a favorite topic of conversation. Following a particularly stunning performance on July 21st, Coman wrote that “Least Valuable Player goes to Kenneth ‘Kenny’ Jackson for completing multiple drug deals in the backyard during the party including selling ‘purple haze’ to people for forty dollars per bag. Here’s to you Kenny, way to be that guy.”

Jackson was ready to help and inched his way closer to SigEp this past summer. He lingered in the home, and the brothers did not complain. On July 20th, Coman rallied his fellow subletters to host another party, explaining, “I’m not even hung over, and Kenny offered to clean up the party this morning.”

Jackson cleaned and the parties continued, but a series of strange incidents in August severed his bond to the house. After the laptops of two subletters went missing, Jackson wandered over and explained that he could return the computers for fifty dollars, with which he would buy drugs. “I thought about it,” Coman explains. “I figured, two thousand dollar computer versus fifty dollars in weed. It wasn’t a hard decision.” Jackson returned hours later, empty-handed and heavily beaten after trying to retrieve the computers. As Jackson roamed around, bloodied and blubbering apologies, Coman was at a birthday party in Manhattan.

Fraternity leaders profess to be taking a hard line against outside help, but the homeless presence persists. Jackson was last seen at SAE in September, dangling out of a tree and yelling to Coman, “I love you, man, I’m sorry, man. I’d do fifteen for you, I’d kill for you.” Coman returned to the inside of the house while SAE brothers forced Kenny away.

Hoping to avoid a similar scene, Comfort has kept his distance. But he knows that homeless labor is always welcome. “I could go back whenever I want,” he explains. “But my name isn’t ‘nigger.’ It’s Mr. Comfort.”

Like Sigma Nu, SAE, and the majority of other Yale fraternities, SigEp hopes to restore its “gentlemanly image.” Larry Wise resents the rumors of homeless help and explains, “As house manager, I’m opposed to having people around whom I don’t know.” Principles aside, the seasoned members of the New Haven homeless community are well aware of Yale’s Greek life and their roles as its custodians. Indeed, as a July invitation to a party at SigEp suggested, “If you need directions to SigEp, just ask any homeless person.”

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