City temporarily closes shelter, changes policies

The policies of New Haven’s homeless shelters — which one city official referred to as “crash pads” rather than centers for rehabilitation — are being re-examined as the city and its homeless approach the critical winter season.

Beginning today, the city will close its overflow shelter for the next two months adopt a new length-of-stay policy in its shelters to discourage homeless occupants from staying indefinitely and guide them, with help from their case managers, towards independent living.

Officials said the city’s overflow shelter will reopen in November, in time for winter. The policy follows from a report by the city’s Homeless Advisory Commission and requires occupants who wish to stay in any city-funded shelter for more than 30 days to develop an action plan towards independent living.

The problem now, according to both city officials and homeless advocacy groups, is that New Haven’s shelters are inundated with substance abusers as well as homeless from surrounding towns whose own neighborhoods provide little, if any, social services. Compounding the situation is New Haven’s critical dearth of affordable housing. The result of these problems is that many homeless have been calling the shelters home for as long as eight years.

“[We] have become concerned with the failure of our shelter system to effectively move clients from emergency shelter to independent living,” the commission’s report states. “Shelters have become places where many individuals have stayed for long periods of time, in many cases years, with little movement on the part of clients towards more appropriate and permanent housing.”

New Haven’s shelters have been brimming all year. The city’s overflow shelter, which is typically closed from April to November, has been forced to stay open for the summer in response to increased demand. And at Columbus House, a private shelter that already has a length-of-stay policy, the occupancy rate has risen 20 percent in the last four years.

The city’s commission found that over one-third of the shelters’ occupants were from surrounding towns and states. New Haven spends $1.4 million annually on homelessness services, more than any other municipality in Connecticut. City data also shows that half of the single men in city shelters are substance abusers.

“We’re not saying to someone you have so many days and that if you’ve done everything in your power you’re not going to have shelter,” said Gary Spinner, chairman of the Homeless Advisory Commission. “We’re saying people really need to maximize their potential and work with their case managers.”

Spinner said many living in city shelters are employed but using their earnings to buy drugs and alcohol, which both supports their addictions and prevents them from moving out of the shelters.

“We can no longer enable people and their addictions,” Community Services Administrator Sheila Bell said.

But advocacy groups warn that while the city must encourage its homeless to achieve independent living, it has to improve its social services in the shelters. Diana Cieslak ’04, co-coordinator of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, is concerned the city will not provide enough additional help.

“[Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is] trying to move people faster towards independent living but at the same time not really providing the resources to do that,” Cieslak said.

The city’s Homeless Advisory Commission is comprised of 13 members, including two members of the Board of Aldermen, five homeless or formerly homeless citizens, a shelter provider, a homeless advocate and four other citizens. One of the aldermen on the commission is Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04.

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