City looks for solutions to homelessness

Sal Forgione Jr. stops by the Dunkin’ Donuts on Church and Center streets most nights. But unlike most other customers, Forgione spends his days sitting in front of the courthouse on Elm Street asking for change — his home on the corner is nothing more than a bench in a bus stop.

Forgione’s case is not unique — many others seek shelter wherever they can. According to a homelessness count conducted by the United Way in 2003, during the course of the year, 3,938 were homeless in New Haven at some point, and in any given week, 1,305 homeless men and women– including 343 children — walked the streets looking for a place to spend the night. In an effort to combat homelessness, Ward 10 Alderman Ed Mattison said that the city will announce a comprehensive program in the next few weeks, joining an effort by the state of Connecticut and homeless-advocacy organizations to create 10,000 new housing units statewide in the next 10 years.

This year alone, he said, the state is trying to make a down payment on that number by creating 600 such units.

“The city is following the state’s example, and we are working on our own plan for how we’re going to respond to chronic homelessness in New Haven,” Mattison said.

The Mayor’s Homeless Advisory Commission is sponsoring a study for the next six months to develop a plan of action. The study, conducted by Holt, Wexler and Farnam Consulting, will include interviews with government officials, private agencies and the homeless themselves. The initiative comes as a part of President Bush’s recent pledge to end chronic homelessness in the next decade.

John Huettner, the special projects director for New Haven Community Service, said the city spent an estimated $1.4 million on homeless shelters and services last year, more than all other cities in Connecticut combined. Most of the funding goes to the shelters, including the Emmanuel Baptist Shelter, the Overflow Shelter and Life Haven.

In addition to the city’s substantial contributions to combat homelessness, Huettner also said the community has done more than its part.

“The amount they help is considerable; New Haven is a very caring community,” Huettner said. “There’s no way you could really calculate how much they help if you include what churches do, soup kitchens and how much people donate things.”

Regardless, both Mattison and Jessica Leight ’06 said there is more to be done.

Leight, a member of the homeless advocacy group Respect Line said she has heard that the city will increase supportive housing in the course of the plan, which offers subsidies and on-site coverage for those with mental and physical disabilities.

“It’s particularly appropriate since an extremely high percentage of the chronically homeless have one or more of those types of disabilities,” Leight said. “It is a great initiative; one could only hope that it will come through.”

Mattison said that two factors in particular have contributed to the high rate of homelessness in New Haven. Many people lost permanent jobs because of several factory closings across the city.

“There is no question that the kinds of jobs for people at the lower end of the economic ladder are becoming scarcer,” Mattison said.

As low-end jobs have been increasingly hard to find, so too has affordable housing. Mattison said many at the bottom have been negatively affected as a result of the city’s financial success, triggered by the arrival of several high-end businesses.

“The cost of housing is going up at a fairly rapid clip, and the people moving in tend to displace the poorest folk,” Mattison said.

The majority of homeless persons find more permanent housing within a month or two, Mattison said. He estimates that the number of chronically homeless in New Haven is around 230.

In addition to providing a place for the homeless to sleep, other shelters like the Columbus House Overflow Shelter on Cedar Street also offers help for those with substance addictions. Funded by the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, patients are assessed by physicians and nurses and then put in a detox area.

Organized like a doctor’s office, homeless men and women wait on the receptionists bench to be examined. The facility has 26 beds in the main area and three more near the front entrance.

Lynne Boomer, a registered nurse and spokesperson for the shelter, said they also try to help patients become more independent.

“They are also assigned a counselor who helps them continue treatment somewhere else,” Boomer said.

Patients may be referred to organizations like Sober Housing, the Salvation Army or the Grant Street Partnership, where they can receive help with job training and finding housing.

Each shelter is run by non-profit organizations, which have monetary contracts with the city. In addition, the city helps fund programs like Youth Continuum, which provides prevention services to homeless and at-risk youths.

The city has several wide-reaching policies regarding the homeless, one of which is the unofficial “No-Freeze” policy, which ensures that anyone who needs a place to stay will receive it.

To make sure all are accommodated, Huettner said the city has arranged a contingency plan through organizations like Inside at Night. Composed of various churches, the interfaith cooperative ministry funds the overflow sheltering. Mattison, a member of Inside at Night, said they have not had to provide overflow space yet this winter.

“There are lots of people who are concerned with the long term, but the organization is focused on emergency shelter needs,” Mattison said. “If we don’t do it, nobody else will.”

The length-of-stay policy is an effort to encourage the homeless to find housing. Within 30 days, they are given a case manager who helps them recover and rejoin the workforce.

“We don’t want to be in the business of warehousing people but in giving them opportunities to move out of that shelter,” Huettner said.

Part of the policy includes a $3-per-night fee for those who can afford it. Once a person is able to find more permanent housing, all the money they have paid is given back.

In addition to the city’s formal policies, the police try to adopt a hands-off approach when dealing with the homeless. University Police Lt. Michael Patten said if a homeless person is not doing anything illegal, there is no reason for police to stop them.

“They’re not going to be treated any different based on their status as homeless persons. We focus on behavior, not status.”

Forgione said the New Haven police have never bothered him personally. Whenever they find him, he said officers simply ask him to sit up to make sure he is fine.

The plight of homeless individuals in New Haven such as Maggie Carter has helped redirect city officials’ plans.
Sophie Perl
The plight of homeless individuals in New Haven such as Maggie Carter has helped redirect city officials’ plans.

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