Nutman: Alternate help for homeless

New Haven has long been a city of refuge; it mandates that new development include affordable housing, it has spent more on funding for services for the homeless than the other municipalities in the state combined according to city officials, and in 2007 it launched the Elm City resident card program to protect its immigrant community.

So when city officials cut over $300,000 from its budget for services for the homeless, including nearly $200,000 earmarked for the Cedar Street Overflow Shelter, it came as a bit of a shock. While city programs have been affected in this latest budget crunch — 35 jobs were cut and just this week city officials have moved to sell the Dwight School — the consequences of the cut on the homeless population are both dire and palpable. The $60,000 now left in the budget for the shelter can only fund operations for a month. The shelter is normally open November through March.

The cut seems harsh: Without help, hundreds could literally freeze on the streets of New Haven this winter. But, perhaps, that is what made this program the right one for the city to under-fund. New Haven residents won’t let people freeze on their streets and, consequently, will find a way to fund the shelter.

In response to the impending crisis facing New Haven’s homeless, a broad coalition of students, city residents, Yale organizations, United Way and even the city itself emerged to raise money for the shelter. Through Yale’s Shelter Now chapter, students pledged to raise $20,000 for the cause, helped in part by a $10,000 donation by Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs. Even before the Community Services Administration’s Nov. 20 tent-city fundraiser, in which 31 groups paid to set up tents on the Green, private donations had funded nine-tenths of the $250,000 needed to open the shelter from now until April. The fundraiser, supported not only by nonprofits but also by the local business community, raised more than the $23,000 needed; at last count over $30,000 had been collected.

This commitment to the city’s homeless is nothing new. In the fall of 2002, nearly 100 people slept on the Green for 52 nights to protest the temporary closing of the Cedar Street shelter. For many years, groups such as Inside at Night have raised funds to extend the operation of the shelter, allowing it to open in early October and remain open until mid-May.

Thus, funding for services to aid the homeless in New Haven has long been a public-private venture. While such a partnership is rare for these types of services, cities often engage in them to fund other projects. For instance, while the city is investing money in the 360 State St. project and Centerplan’s College Square hotel project through tax breaks and cheap land, private investors will pay for the actual construction of the building. And while cities also engage in partnerships with other levels of government — the state of Connecticut funds much of the new schools project and the federal government, in large part, funded New Haven’s Urban Renewal — this type of support depends heavily on the particular service the city is looking to fund. The Elm City resident cards, for instance, must be funded by a private foundation because neither the state nor the federal government supports the measure.

And while the issue of homelessness is less volatile than the city’s immigration policy, neither the state nor the federal government seems particularly committed to funding shelters. In fact, the state often exacerbates the shelter crunch by dumping ex-convicts at the doors of New Haven shelters and not pushing communities surrounding the city to provide for the homeless.

Perhaps, then, private investment is the only way to sustain the city’s shelter programs. The situation is far from ideal; the city should be able to keep its shelters open year-round without outside funding.

But given that New Haven had to make large, sweeping cuts this year, the choice of homeless services was probably the right one. The city cut funds without fully abandoning the population; in fact, Kica Matos, the head of the Community Services Administration, played a prominent role in the fundraising effort. Furthermore, city officials could expect the private sector to come through. The commitment of individuals to this cause does not translate to other arenas. For instance, although citizens and lawmakers wanted to avoid cutting programs from the budget, no one rallied to raise funds to retain the 35 city employees laid off or to continue the Early Reading Success Program.

Fully funding the shelter would have come at the cost of something else — more jobs, further curtailing library hours. But unlike the Cedar Street shelter, there would be no one to save these victims.

Sarah Nutman is a sophomore in Trumbull College.

Comments

  • Strunk & White

    Alternate. Alternative.

    The words are not always interchangeable as nouns or adjectives. The first means every other one in a series; the second, one of two possibilities. As the other one of a series of two, an alternate may stand for "a substitute," but an alternative, although used in a similar sense, connotes a matter of choice that is never present with alternate.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Sarah, for an interesting analysis of the city's motivations for cutting the homelessness budget this winter. Yet simply because the community ended up stepping in to fill the need does *not* mean that their stepping in was inevitable, or that the city was counting on it.

    As someone who was a part of the some of the early discussions about what should be done to address this problem, I can testify to the fact that many community members felt that taking care of the homeless is the explicit responsibility of the government, not the private sector. In many ways, they were hesitant to relieve the city and state of that burden, to let it off the hook. It followed that much of our discussion focused around how to convince the city and state to reinstore funding and support.

    It wasn't until September, relatively late in the game--remember that the budget cuts came down in May, and that the Overflow usually opens in October with Inside at Night funds--that anyone began to think seriously and proactively about pursuing an aggressive private fundraising campaign instead….that is, our broad coalition "emerged" and "stepped in."

    What happened this winter was certainly a testament to what can be done when private and public join forces. But I do not that anyone anticipated it, that it was a calculation on the part of City Hall to strategically shirk its public duties.