Committee to investigate Columbus House overflow shelter

A special city comission is investigating Columbus House, a privately-run New Haven homeless shelter, based on claims that the shelter is not doing an adequate job of returning homeless people to independent lives.

Ward 30 Alderman Nathan Joyner called for the investigation into the shelter’s alleged lack of results because he said he believes Columbus House patrons are not receiving enough individual attention. Also, Joyner said he questions whether Columbus House is making full use of the funds allocated to it by the city of New Haven.

An advisory committee of New Haven residents will examine the issue in the coming months.

“It was like a warehouse,” said Joyner, who once worked at Columbus House. “People weren’t being motivated.”

The goal of Columbus House, as stated on its Web site, is “understanding and overcoming the problems which cause people to become homeless.”

While Columbus House is privately funded, the overflow program at the shelter receives funding from the city. Joyner said he is not sure the shelter is using these funds in an effective way.

“We just want to make sure the city of New Haven is getting its money’s worth,” Joyner said.

Another one of Joyner’s points of contention is the shelter’s length-of-stay policy, which he said is not rigid enough.

When a homeless person checks into a New Haven overflow shelter, he can stay there for only 30 days before he develops, with help from shelter employees, a concrete plan for rehabilitation. But because it is in part privately operated, Columbus House does not have to abide by this city policy.

Alison Cunningham, director of Columbus House, said the shelter established a 90-day maximum length-of-stay about 10 years ago, which she said is “very helpful to clients.”

But Joyner said he disagrees.

He said Columbus House’s comparatively long maximum length-of-stay might not motivate patrons to try to turn around their lives more quickly. On top of this, Joyner said he is not even sure that this policy is being strictly enforced.

“Individuals were on the program for years,” Joyner said.

Cunningham said the Columbus House program is designed to help the clients identify and address the issues that brought them to homelessness.

“I don’t know why he [launched the investigation] unless he just doesn’t understand what brings about homelessness,” Cunningham said.

Columbus House’s policy came under scrutiny recently because of the September closing of the city’s overflow shelter. Many who have been unable to find shelter elsewhere are residing on the New Haven Green.

“The homeless community has stood together throughout this crisis,” said Diana Cieslak ’04, co-coordinator of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project. “No one’s really alone.”

A recent study of 30 U.S. cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that in 1998, 26 percent of all emergency shelter requests were not met because of a lack of resources.

Cieslak said New Haven is no exception.

“Right now in New Haven the shelters are overcrowded and understaffed,” Cieslak said. “There are too many homeless people and not enough resources.”

Since New Haven closed its overflow shelter, many of the city's homeless have formed a
Peter VanAgtmael
Since New Haven closed its overflow shelter, many of the city's homeless have formed a "tent city" on the New Haven Green. Ward 30 Alderman Nathan Joyner has called for an investigation into practices at the privately-run Columbus House shelter.

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