Shelters struggle to meet demand

Attacking a perennial problem from multiple angles, community organizations and aldermen are looking to put more roofs over the heads of Elm City residents this winter.

The Overflow Men’s Shelter, located on Cedar Street, east of the Medical School campus, opened last night and is expected to fill two-thirds of its 75-bed capacity, Columbus House Executive Director Allison Cunningham said. Columbus House, which has a year-round co-ed shelter on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, runs the overflow shelter to provide free housing to men looking for a safe and sheltered place to sleep.

Columbus House receives funds from the city sufficient to run the shelter at over $1,000 per night from Nov. 1 through April 30. A community organization called Inside At Night raised enough funds to open the shelter a month early and hopes to acquire more funds to keep the shelter open into the summer, Dwight Hall Program Director Johnny Scafidi ’01 said. Although shelters will sometimes ask for a nominal deposit to reserve a bed for a long-term stay, the shelters will not refuse a bed to a person if they don’t provide the $3 the staffers ask for, Scafidi said.

While the overflow shelter will take some of the pressure off the year-round shelters, Cunnigham said the city has seen an increase this summer in homeless women, a demographic that will not benefit from the opening of the overflow shelter. City shelters are segregated by sex.

“We’re kind of stuck with the dilemma that we’ve got more women than we’ve seen ever,” she said.

Cunningham said she also recognizes the need for more than just the temporary relief housing provided by shelters, including supportive housing which can help individuals transitioning out of the shelter system. But the problem of affordable housing affects a broader spectrum of New Haven residents than just the homeless that crowd the streets.

“Rents are still sky high,” Cunningham said. “Even though the cost of housing is going down a little, it’s not going down enough.”

Working to find solutions to this related, although distinct, problem, a Board of Aldermen ad-hoc committee met last Thursday to discuss and review strategies to preserve and create more affordable housing in downtown New Haven. While both Columbus House and the aldermen are addressing the immediate need for housing in New Haven, Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison said the aldermen are specifically targeting a population with an annual income of around $40,000 and not looking to fix the problems afflicting the population at the bottom of the income range.

“We need to make [housing] more possible for people who are not the poorest of the poor but are just Yale secretaries, cops, firemen,” he said.

The committee hired Jim Farnam ’73 of the local consulting firm Holt, Wexler and Farnam to research possible strategies over the summer by looking at success stories in similar areas such as nearby Stamford. One of the strategies reviewed at the meeting was a plan for inclusionary zoning that was deemed too restrictive, Mattison said. New Haven needs to increase the number of buildings in the downtown area, he said, not limit it by increasing zoning laws.

Mattison said the supply of downtown housing does not meet the demand, causing housing prices to become prohibitively high. An increasing number of people want to live downtown, but the limited supply of land has decreased the availability of housing.

“We are victims of our own success,” he said.

Accommodating the increase of residents in the downtown area, Mattison said the committee will be looking for ways to maximize the small amount of usable land. In order to get feedback from prospective developers, some firms will be invited to the next meeting, Farnam said.

As the problem of affordable housing has reached a regional and national scale, Farnam said the South Central Connecticut Regional Council of Governments, an organization that coordinates land use and transportation in the region, has also developed an alternative solution to the lack of single-family affordable housing.

The plan will identify transportation corridors along which tax-free land may be used for building single-family residences to increase affordable home ownership, she said. The city will collect tax revenue because the house itself will still be taxed, but the homeowner will save money by not paying taxes on the property.

SCCRCOG Executive Director Judy Gott said the program is still in development but will eventually seek to relieve the pressure on working families that cannot afford decent housing. She said her hometowm of Branford has had similar problems with maintaining affordable downtown residences.

“We have young people who work for a McDonald’s in our town that can’t afford to live in our town,” Gott said.

This program is one of many strategies being proposed across the county attempting to make affordable housing more accessible and integrated into the community.

Involvement from many organizations working toward solving housing problems relieves the pressure on organizations charged with handling the everyday duties of homelessness care, like the Elm City’s Columbus House. The commencement of the 10-year plan to end homelessness last December has worked toward bringing these issues into the public eye, Cunningham said.

“We can’t do it on our own,” she said. “Our hands are very full with the day-to-day work of providing shelter.”

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