In recession, shelters short on space, funding

Local homeless shelters fear they will have to turn away more people than ever this year due to budget cuts.
Local homeless shelters fear they will have to turn away more people than ever this year due to budget cuts. Photo by Baobao Zhang.

James Scott came to New Haven four months ago on a Greyhound bus from Richmond, Va., looking for a new job and a new life. Now he sits on a bench on the New Haven Green, his arms folded inside his thin blue polo, shivering as the wind rustles the tree branches above him. Unlike most of the other homeless people on the Green, Scott has no duffle bag, backpack or coat. All he owns are the clothes on his back.

Scott drifts between the streets and homeless shelters, such as the Columbus House, whose emergency shelter provides beds and meals to more than 80 women and men each night. But Columbus House is seeing record demand for beds from people like Scott — at the same time as the city is cutting the shelter’s funding. As the recession has the duel effect of pushing more people into poverty and reducing the funds available to homeless shelters, more people are at risk of spending the winter braving the elements.

An increase in the number of people who are unemployed and a decrease in state funding for homeless shelters may mean that more people will be left to sleep on the streets this winter.
An increase in the number of people who are unemployed and a decrease in state funding for homeless shelters may mean that more people will be left to sleep on the streets this winter.

Still feeling the repercussions of a $340,500 budget reduction from the city for their 2008 homeless services, two New Haven organizations that provide short-term shelter for homeless people, the Columbus House and New Haven Home Recovery, will likely turn away more people seeking food and shelter than in past years, directors of both shelters said. Although the city will open its emergency overflow shelter on Ceder Street on Nov. 7, Columbus House is unlikely to remain open for the entire winter due to a $200,000 shortage, which stems from a city-wide budget cut for overflow shelter in 2007, said Alison Cunningham, the executive director of Columbus House, which operates the city’s overflow shelter as well.

FUNDING DILEMMA

Local shelters are facing problems on two fronts because of the recession. More people are seeking shelter after losing their homes and jobs, but simultaneously, Connecticut has had less public grant money to offer to New Haven this year.

New Haven Home Recovery, a non-profit agency that operates two emergency shelters for homeless women and children, is scrambling to raise funds in order to meet a $200,000 budget gap, Executive Director Kellyann Day said. The organization has seen a 30 percent increase this year in request for family shelter, she said.

“We’re almost always at 100 percent capacity,” Day said. “There is not enough affordable housing for families and single women to move into.”

A record number of children from homeless families have been living in the shelters this year, Day said. On Tuesday, she said the organization’s two shelters accommodated 20 children.

With state funding out of the question, New Haven Home Recovery is dependent on private donations and will attempt to raise money through an upcoming wine tasting and silent auction at the end of the month.

The Columbus House, which operates a seasonal emergency overflow shelter for men, had to turn away 1,400 men last winter due to a lack of beds and space, according to its Web site. As a result, the overflow shelter was consistently filled beyond capacity last winter, Cunningham said.

“Our capacity is 75, but as with most shelters in the city, we typically go beyond that,” she said. “We hover around 90 to 95 every night, at least last year, sometimes creeping up to 100 or 105. That’s dangerous, but we just don’t have the space.”

Cunningham said her biggest worry is that funding from the city for the overflow shelter might run out as early as March next year.

LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE

Those who have spent New Haven winters on the street before know what’s at stake if the shelters turn them away.

Bill Cavallo, 51, has been homeless in New Haven since 2007. Unable to work because of his alcoholism, he said he depends on Social Security.

Cavallo, with matted strands of gray hair and a weatherworn face, said he had been frequently turned away from homeless shelters during the winter. To avoid the cold and police harassment, he slept under the bandstand on the Green, he said.

“I used to sleep under the stage,” he said. “There’s a little piece you can pull off and get inside. I have blankets under there and everything.”

Cavallo’s friend, who identified himself as “Toto Tee,” said he has been homeless since 1976.

Tee said when shelters turn away homeless people during the winter, it forces them to sleep out in dangerous freezing temperatures. Cavallo pulled his hands out of his pocket, showing off the gray and brown frostbite scars on them, one of them freshly pink.

“The shelters got so many rules. They kick you out at six or seven in the morning,” Tee said. “It’s wintertime cold, and where are you supposed to go?”

PITCHING TENTS AND PITCHING IN

Despite the challenge of raising thousands of dollars in a short amount of time, the city of New Haven and Yale students have planned ambitious projects.

The city will relaunch a charity event on the New Haven Green in November called “Tent City,” an event that began last year as an effort to raise money for the emergency overflow shelter. Participants in this year’s event will solicit donations from the community and pitch tents on the Green on the night of Nov. 19 to show solidarity with the homeless.

According to Chisara Asomugha, the city’s Community Services administrator, “Tent City 2008” raised more than $42,000 last year. She said she hopes donations this year will meet or exceed last year’s amount.

“We want to remind people that even during these hard economic times that homelessness is still a serious problem,” she said.

Shelter Now, a Yale undergraduate organization under the umbrella group Yale Hunger and Homeless Action Project (YHHAP), is hosting a similar charity event — a “sleepout” on Old Campus — on Oct. 24. Gabriel Zucker ’12 said Shelter Now and YHHAP have organized a week of activities to increase awareness among the student population of how serious the homeless problem is in New Haven. The activities will culminate in the YHHAP Fast, a semesterly fund-raiser during which students can donate a day’s worth of their meal plan to homeless shelters.

According to Zucker, Shelter Now raised over $35,000 last year to keep the Cedar Street emergency shelter open through the winter. He said he is optimistic that Shelter Nowwill exceed last year’s donation.

Last year the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs helped to support Shelter Now with a $10,000 gift compared to the $1,000 ONHSA had consistently the organization to fight homelessness in New Haven earlier.

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