As temperatures drop, frustrations are mounting among directors of New Haven shelters struggling to accommodate the yearly influx of homeless people that winter brings.
The problem of overcrowding in the city’s homeless shelters happens each year, said Alison Cunningham, executive director of the Columbus House shelter in Fair Haven. Although shelter administrators are adding beds to accommodate more people, city and shelter officials said long-reaching reform is necessary to make affordable housing more accessible to those in need.
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While Yale students are safely tucked away behind the gates of their residential colleges, officials estimate that nearly 1,200 city residents have no place to call home — far more than the shelters can accommodate. New Haven Home Recovery Director Kellyann Day, who runs two shelters for families and single women, said she can only accommodate 19 percent of the people who request housing.
The situation is a familiar one for Cunningham, who said that Columbus is already at full capacity. To accommodate the increased demand for shelter, she said, Columbus House opens an additional shelter in the fall to house 75 extra men and puts up as many cots as it can for everyone else.
“We try not to turn people away, especially as it gets colder,” she said. “There are very few beds for single adult women in town, [but] we’ll put up cots and call all the other shelters to make sure there’s not a bed available [elsewhere].”
Sheila Allen-Bell, the community services administrator for the city government, said the shortage of shelter beds during the winter is a recurring problem.
“Nothing’s really changed,” she said. “It’s the same as every single year.”
In addition to the extra measures the shelters take to add beds for the winter months, shelter directors said, volunteers from the community play a crucial role during the holiday season. Both Cunningham and Day said their shelters are assisted by a flurry of volunteers who do anything from cooking Christmas meals to handing out gifts. Some of the more colorful volunteers include a lawyer who dresses up as Santa for families at the shelter and members from a local synagogue who sing Christmas carols, Day said.
Although the volunteers help to usher in the holiday spirit, they are not the ultimate solution to the underlying problem, Day said. She said more steps should be taken to provide low-income housing to people living in poverty.
“If you had the choice, would you rather live in a shelter or in your own house?” she said. “We need more affordable and supportive housing. Some folks have mental health issues. Some of them have had generational issues of poverty. They need some help and support, and we’ve seen it happen.”
Some city developers, it seems, are catching on to the idea. The second phase of construction on the Quinnipiac Terrace housing development, meant to offer affordable housing to those in need, began Wednesday in Fair Haven. In nearby Newhallville, additional low-income housing units are currently under construction.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is spearheading what he calls a 10-year plan to end homelessness in New Haven, the first stated priority of which is to expand permanent supportive housing opportunities. Though she is frustrated with the current situation, Cunningham said, she thinks the city and Mayor DeStefano are aware of the problem.
“Our mayor has always been one who is committed to the issue of homelessness,” she said.
Ward 21 Alderman Katrina Jones, who represents the Newhallville area, said she hopes to see more housing for the homeless in the future. She said the Board of Aldermen will be meeting soon to address the issue specifically.