As the temperature fell to freezing Monday night, much of New Haven’s homeless population was left out in the cold. But shortages in shelter space are nothing new — they come every winter. What has changed is the face of homelessness in the Elm City.
From addicts and mentally ill citizens, New Haven’s homeless population increasingly constitutes of women and children, New Haven Home Recovery Executive Director Kellyann Day said. She added that her organization, which provides shelter to women, children and families exclusively, has seen a 208 percent increase in families seeking assistance in the past year. Concurrent with this demographic shift, the Elm City homeless population has definitely increased in size despite a lack of hard data, Ron Dunhill, who works with the Hill Health Center Homeless Program, said.
“The face of homelessness is a child under the age of six,” Day said. “It is heartbreaking and it is affecting a lot of things.” She added that children often contract an illness when sharing a shelter with a lot of other people, and they will immediately go to the emergency room for treatment because they do not have a regular pediatrician.
Day said that she believes the increase in homeless families is due to the state of the national economy and the increase in housing prices. A two-bedroom apartment in New Haven has doubled in cost in the past 10 years, she said, and minimum wage has barely changed. These financial pressures have sent an increasing number of families to the shelters, she added.
Linda Carbone, the director of operations for the Center Church on the Green soup kitchen, said that she has seen more families coming in for food as well.
“It’s no longer drug-addicted, alcoholic, or mentally-ill [people who come to the soup kitchen],” she said. “We have working poor, and families that can’t survive on minimum wage.”
The most recent city-wide study of homelessness counted approximately 650 citizens without permanent shelter two years ago, said Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project Co-Director Amalia Skilton. Dunhill said he believes that there could be as many as 1,000 homeless people living in the area, including those in shelters, in cars and outdoors.
Normally there are only two shelters in New Haven that offer space to men: the Emmanuel Baptist Shelter and Columbus House. But in response to to the influx of those seeking shelter from the cold, the city’s overflow shelter on Cedar Street was opened on Nov. 22, Dunhill said.
When the overflow shelter closed in April, organizers were unsure over whether they could reopen it this winter because it primarily relies on private donations, Dunhill said.
He said New Haven now has three shelters for men and several for women and families, but much of the homeless population remains on the streets; most of the shelters can only house 75 to 100 people, so there is inevitable overflow.
Day said that her shelter had to turn away six single women on Friday because it was already operating at full capacity.
To address the overflow problem, a program called Abraham’s Tent opens up churches and other places of worship to 12 men throughout the winter. Skilton said these 12 men are selected and moved to a new congregation each week where they are housed and fed.
Skilton said YHHAP sent volunteers to work with these congregations last year, but will now be running an entire week out of Center Church on the Green, providing 100 percent of the food and volunteers for that time.
Despite programs such as Abraham’s Tent, many homeless men and women remain on the streets, Dunhill said. In addition to the stresses of having to compete for space, many homeless people find other reasons to dislike shelters.
“Things are stolen [at shelters] on a pretty regular basis,” he said. “There are fights, and you have to deal with 74 other people. Sometimes that is very difficult for our clients.”
He added that people will also become confused by the behavioural regulations of shelters: no alcohol, no weapons, and only designated smoking breaks. But the cost of the shelter is also a factor for some men and women.
Joe Comfort, a homeless man who often begs for money outside of Blue State Coffee on York Street, said that he spends his time doing odd-jobs or begging in order to collect the fee to enter a shelter. He added that he did not like this policy, but that he pays anyway.
The next count of New Haven’s homeless population is set for Jan. 26, and YHHAP will facilitate Yale students’ volunteering, Skilton said.
Daniel Sisgoreo contributed reporting.