Thanks to a large community fund-raising effort, tents for homeless people will not be pitched across the New Haven Green this fall.
The Overflow Men’s Shelter is scheduled to reopen this afternoon, almost two months in advance of its usual opening date. The seasonal winter shelter typically closes from May through October. However, last spring an ad hoc group of local residents and students worked to keep it open through the summer and early fall.
The Overflow Crisis Advisory Committee, or OCAC, has managed to raise $95,000, which is enough money to run the shelter for an four extra months.
OCAC originally believed the money would last the full six months between May and October. However, Columbus House, the nonprofit agency contracted by the city to run the overflow shelter, announced early this summer that it could not properly run a shelter on such a tight budget.
“They thought it was too ‘bare-bones,'” said Ward 10 Alderman Ed Mattison LAW ’68, who helped organize OCAC.
Instead of having the usual two eight-hour shifts for three staff members, running a bare-bones shelter meant having two staff members working for 12 hours straight. Mattison said the staff was exhausted.
Alison Cunningham, the executive director of Columbus House, said dinner was the main thing that was missing. She said clients were given snacks when available and breakfast in the mornings, but that they had to find dinner somewhere else — which for some of them meant not at all.
After operating the shelter this way for May and June, Cunningham said Columbus House wanted to be able to run a “more reasonable shelter — for the staff hours and for the clients.”
“Coming in at 8 at night is OK,” she said, in reference to the shelter’s later opening time, “but it’s a lot better for people to come in late in the afternoon and be out of the elements and off the street in a safe place with dinner.”
Faced with a choice between closing for the rest of the summer or closing for the early fall, OCAC opted for the former, and the shelter closed July 1. Mattison said OCAC decided it was best to close when the weather was warmest, rather than wait until September. In the meantime, he said, OCAC spent $1,000 on sleeping bags and tents for homeless people to use until the shelter could reopen today.
Magni Hamso ’05 a member of the homeless advocacy group Respect Line, said the group was upset when they learned of Columbus House’s budgetary demands. Respect Line attracted attention last fall when it organized “Tent City” on the Green in response to the closing of the overflow shelter, and the group worked to help OCAC raise money this past spring.
“We’d been saying we needed to raise $90,000 and once we did so we’d be allowed to keep the shelter open,” Hamso said.
She also said there was disappointment among the homeless who had to sleep on the street for the past two months.
Starting today, the Overflow Men’s Shelter will operate on a higher monthly budget than it had for May and June. Dinner will be served, and the shelter will return to its normal hours with more staff.
Though the shelter problem has calmed for the time being, both Mattison and Hamso said they are fully aware of the challenges to return next spring. Mattison said the number of homeless people is skyrocketing, and there are no longer seasonal ups and downs as there were in the past. Instead, he said, the number of homeless people is much steadier and much more intense.
“All over the country, homeless shelters are bursting at the seams,” he said.