Zucker: To keep our homeless off the streets

If I had my way, I would close the emergency homeless shelters in New Haven.

I would close the shelters not because of the portion of homeless who find the system demeaning or because shelter-based life can be unsustainable. I would close the emergency shelters because we, as a city, can and should give the homeless more than one night with a bed, a meal and a shower.

We could create a robust re-entry program for people leaving prison, who comprise 12 percent of the single adult homeless population in our city — leaving them with a job and a place to live, instead of at the doors of a shelter.

We could invest in affordable housing. The Connecticut Coalition for Homelessness calculates that one needs an hourly wage of $21.17 to afford a two-bedroom apartment in New Haven; as a result, 36 percent of homeless adults in families are employed and still live in shelters. Meanwhile, the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers — whose holders have their rent capped at 30 percent of their income — is usually closed, and the wait lasts several years.

We could invest thoroughly in permanent supportive housing, especially for the 46 percent of the single, adult, homeless population whose medical disabilities (exacerbated by years of medical inattention) prevent them from living alone. In time, this investment would even pay for itself. A recent study by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles followed four homeless people living on the streets and then in supportive housing; once in the housing projects, they not only reintegrated themselves into society but they even decreased their consumption of public services dollars by 43 percent.

But despite repeated promises and valiant efforts on the part of non-profits and local governments, we’re not anywhere near a place where we could close any shelters without turning people out to the streets. Still, this winter, the city might do it, without an adequate back-up plan.

Last winter, there were nearly 700 homeless people in New Haven — a number expected to rise this year. But the shelter system only has beds for a few hundred. In past years, to account for this shortage, the City of New Haven has funded an Overflow Shelter, which accommodates an additional 100-120 men for the winter nights. But last year, facing a severe budget crisis, the shelter (along with City Hall’s homelessness expert and the director of New Haven’s Ten-Year-Plan to End Homelessness) was cut from the city budget. This year, the situation is no better. A crucial $120,000 is missing from the budget, without which the Overflow Shelter will close mid-winter—leaving 120 men (the size of your residential college class) on the streets.

In all fairness, the City’s hands are tied by its reliance on Hartford for tax dollars — and New Haven already spends more on homelessness than the rest of Connecticut’s townships combined. Regardless, only a massive citywide fundraising campaign — dubbed Shelter Now — saved the shelter last year, and only a repeat performance will do it again.

As a society in the 21st century, we should invest enough to make shelters obsolete. We should provide stronger, surer pathways out of chronic homelessness. But our first step on that road has to be a renewed determination that human beings have a fundamental right to shelter. It’s a conviction that the city demonstrated en masse last year — and supporting the campaign to sustain the Overflow is the least we can do to show it again. And thankfully, in this type of project, mere individual students can have a real impact — it costs only about $13 to give one person a bed in the shelter for one night.

Today, our task is clear — raise the funds, or 120 men may freeze in our city’s streets. But our fight is also about more than that. What we do today sets the stage for serving the nearly 700 homeless among us to the best of our ability. If we’re successful, then we’ll next discuss closing shelters when we know that we’ve given the homeless more than one night with a bed, a meal, and a shower.

Gabriel Zucker is a sophomore in Pierson College and a coordinator of Shelter Now.

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