By 4 p.m. on Wednesday, 60 people stood in line outside the door of the Columbus House homeless shelter on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, where the lobby was littered with vestiges of people on the move — beat-up suitcases, black trash bags filled with belongings, bundles of bed linens.
The new shelter has opened at a time when the city is blaming the state government, at least in part, for the increase in New Haven’s homeless population — and state leaders shoot back that tackling homelessness is a joint city-state responsibility.
The opening of a temporary emergency shelter Wednesday night provided 35 more spaces for New Haven’s growing homeless population. But the opening of this, the fourth Columbus House shelter, is only an improvised reaction to a heightening homeless crisis, not a permanent solution, Columbus House director Alison Cunningham said.
“No one wanted to do this,” she said. “We’ve been trying hard to get people housed, and these numbers have been very discouraging.”
In a annual citywide count last year, officials found 778 homeless people on the streets of New Haven in one night. Cunningham estimated that 3,000 people were homeless at some point during 2007, but she said she thinks the number has increased since then.
In a press conference Tuesday, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said he blames New Haven’s homeless epidemic — and the need for an additional emergency shelter — on the state government, which desperately needs to overhaul its prison reentry system, he said.
“One thing driving up the shelter population is the reentry population,” DeStefano said, adding that the state “dumps” ex-convicts into New Haven streets with “no place to work, no place to live” when their prison terms are up.
But Brian Garnett, director of external affairs for the Connecticut Department of Correction, said the state’s existing prison reentry programs have been more than effective at keeping released prisoners off the streets.
“We do not dump people into a community,” Garnett said. “When someone is done with a sentence, they go home. Folks coming to New Haven are coming home.”
All prisoners entering the corrections system are offered the opportunity to partake in a rehabilitation program and the “great majority” choose to participate, he said. This program provides a variety of services to inmates, including education, training in parenting skills and substance abuse counseling, he said.
Inmates who exhibit good behavior during their sentence are also allowed to spend the end of their time outside of prison, under supervision in a halfway house or serving parole, Garnett said. Since the reentry program was implemented in 2003, the recidivism rate for released prisoners has dropped from 47 percent to 24 percent, he said.
“We’re charged with the care and custody of inmates while they’re incarcerated, but once their sentence is up, there’s not a lot we can do to support them,” Garnett said. “We’re not a social-services agency.”
Although Cunningham said the prison-reentry population has contributed to the need for an overflow shelter — 12 percent of the men needing spots in temporary shelters in January were recently released from prison, she said — the sub-prime loan crisis and the rising cost of living have also contributed to the homelessness epidemic. This winter, she said, it became very clear that existing shelter space would not be able to accommodate increasing numbers of single adult males seeking shelter at the Columbus House as the shelters were overcrowded.
Two weeks ago, Cunningham said, she met with DeStefano to discuss the need for another building to accommodate the overflow. Cunningham said DeStefano was quick to respond to the crisis, authorizing the use of Truman School on Truman Street as a temporary shelter for the growing homeless population while students from the school were on February recess.
DeStefano then decided to open one of the Columbus House’s administrative buildings as a temporary shelter. The building, which was originally purchased by the Columbus House to provide offices and classrooms for the Columbus School, was in the middle of being renovated. Now, it will be used as a temporary shelter until April 15, and the city will pay $36,000 to provide the shelter with food and supplies during the duration of its operation.
Those looking for shelter at the Columbus House receive a cot, two hot meals and access to a visiting health clinic twice a week. The shelter also maintains a “no-freeze” policy, under which it does not turn away anyone looking for shelter during the winter season.
Ward 22 Alderman Greg Morehead said he agrees that the state government has not worked hard enough to alleviate New Haven’s homeless problem, but the problem does not just lie with the state — the city and national government are also partially to blame, he said.
“I think the government — the state, New Haven, [President George W.] Bush’s administration — has their priorities in the wrong place,” Morehead said.
Although the city has appropriated $1.6 million in its budget to tackle homelessness in the city, City Hall Spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said the burden of caring for the homeless should not fall on New Haven taxpayers.
“This is not a New Haven problem,” Mayorga said. “This is a Connecticut problem.”
Garnett said the responsibility for New Haven’s homeless epidemic falls on everyone’s shoulders, and it is important for the local community and the state to cooperate with one another to create joint solutions. The Connecticut Department of Correction, for instance, has been collaborating with the New Haven Correctional Facility on Whalley Avenue to create a more streamlined method of releasing prisoners in New Haven, he said. Currently, prisoners are bused from state prisons to New Haven’s jail, where they are discharged into the community.
Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah said the people dropped off at the New Haven Correctional Facility have no plan for work or housing and often end up in shelters like the Columbus House.
Released prisoners need intense guidance in order to fully reincorporate themselves into society, Shah said. Without social workers, he said, most ex-inmates cannot find jobs or permanent housing. Many public housing projects do not allow convicts to live in any of their residences, Shah said.
Including the 35 additional spots in the temporary shelter, the Columbus House provides shelter to over 200 individuals every night.