The trail to Seventh Feather is hidden by snowdrifts and crisscrossed by fake pathways — a precaution designed to prevent passersby and law enforcement officers from finding the camp, a winter refuge for the homeless secluded in New Haven woods.
Phillip “Flip” Goldson, 42, who founded the Seventh Feather campsite last winter, said the secrecy was necessary to ensure that homeless from all over New Haven, frustrated with the city’s shelters, would not overrun the camp.
“People prefer this to the shelters,” Goldson said. “That’s a shame for the shelters, that people prefer to be out here in a tent in the winter.”
Goldson, along with other homeless in the city, said he feels that the city’s shelters are failing those who most need them. Seventh Feather is his response to the system: a housing system for the homeless run by the homeless.
Although it is currently a mere campsite and illegally located on public land, Goldson intends Seventh Feather to be more than a makeshift alternative to living in a shelter. He is working towards upgrading to indoor communal housing within the next two years, providing the down-and-out with shelter and camaraderie as they return to self-reliance. He dreams of expanding the project all over New Haven, but he vows never to pay salaries to employees and never to forget the trademark Seventh Feather approach he developed for the camp, no matter how big it gets: six residents hosting and helping a seventh occupant, the person most in need.
“There are six residents who take care of the camp,” Goldson said. “The seventh feather is the person that has nowhere to go, the one with the hardest luck. But the seventh feather is the most important entity of the camp, the one who’s got to learn the concept of helping. ‘Each one teach one’ — that’s the motto.”
With this approach, Goldson is applying the lessons in self-reliance he gained from his own adverse experiences.
Goldson had unsuccessfully battled drug addiction and homelessness for years when, in 1998, he was told he was HIV positive. He promptly changed his life after receiving the diagnosis, taking steps to cure himself of his drug habit and dedicating his energy to help other homeless. Even after he discovered that the positive test result was false, due to a bureaucratic mistake, Goldson nevertheless continued with plans to found the Seventh Feather campsite. He now works at a McDonald’s and plans to open his own hot dog stand next fall in downtown New Haven. He said his girlfriend Gina will soon move to indoor housing, but he plans to remain in a tent and prove the effectiveness of his vision for self-run homeless projects.
“This is going to be the one program to give people [housing] that will be for single people, not families, for people on the outskirts,” Goldson said of his dream for Seventh Feather. “Everything in New Haven is for families, supportive housing is for drug addicts and people with mental health problems, transitional [housing] is for drug addicts.”
Word of Seventh Feather spread in New Haven’s homeless community, and soon the site had a stream of residents moving in and moving on. The Seventh Feather tents are insulated and well equipped for wintertime. Goldson closes the camp only in the summer, in order to rebuild the site and prepare for the next year.
For J.R., Goldson’s longtime friend and fellow camp resident, Seventh Feather is a release from the anxieties of struggling to keep a job and pay rent for an apartment.
“I’m not worrying anymore,” J.R. said. “I’m now at peace, I can take my time, get my life together without having to deal with chronic work for a time.”
But not everything has gone smoothly this winter. Only three people — Goldson, his girlfriend and J.R. — are currently living at Seventh Feather. As part of his recovery program, Goldson forbids anyone from bringing drugs and alcohol into Seventh Feather. In enforcing the ban, Goldson was forced to expel 10 people from the camp this winter. Eleven others left or were expelled for various reasons. Goldson is currently interviewing someone to join the camp as a resident.
He said he is disappointed but not disheartened that he has had to expel so many people.
“I once said that it would be worth it if I could only help one in 12 people,” Goldson said. “There’s J.R. and Gina — that’s two in 21, that’s better than one in 12 … still, it hurts every time I have to turn someone away, someone I know.”
Goldson is reluctant to send anyone back to the New Haven shelter system. He said workers in shelters can be condescending and the city does not do nearly enough to help the homeless attain self-reliance. But although several groups move to tents every year, Goldson said they lack the insulation or the communal camaraderie he tries to instill in Seventh Feather.
An outreach retention specialist at the shelter New Haven Columbus House, who declined to be named, said the tent camps should not be seen as criticism of shelters.
“It’s not that people are not relying on the shelter system,” she said. “They’re either ashamed or they prefer living on their own.”
Andrew, a former homeless man, said the larger, disorganized tent cities are often teeming with illegal activities.
“I know there’s a lot of drugging in those communal areas, the tent cities,” Andrew said. “They’re getting high up there, they’re exploiting women.”
But Goldson takes pains to emphasize that Seventh Feather is different. He said he tightly enforces the no-drugs policy, plans to make the camp single-sex for next year and constantly develops a deeper spirit of camaraderie among residents.
For J.R., the camp was the best thing that could happen to him in the short-term, a safe, communal dwelling with first-rate heating for a tent.
“I’m content with the way things are now,” J.R. said. “I’m not happy. This is not the way I want to live, but I’m at peace.”