Homeless shelters prepare for winter


With winter fast approaching, the Elm City is gearing up for the seasonal surge of homeless people seeking shelter from the cold. This year, however, the challenges will be even greater: a recent study shows that many who were recently impoverished by the recession are increasing the city’s homeless population.

As economic stresses nationwide have driven many out of their jobs and their homes, city shelters are seeing the effects. Columbus House — a nonprofit that runs an 80-person nightly shelter as well as transitional and permanent supportive housing for 200 more — has been operating its nightly shelter at capacity all year. In previous years, when housing tended to fill up only during cold months, said Alison Cunningham, Columbus House’s executive director.

“We’ve seen more folks who are chronically homeless (being homeless for longer than a year, or multiple episodes of homelessness over three years),” she said in an email, explaining that chronic homelessness has grown by 12 percent over last year in the Elm City. “We’re also seeing more folks who are homeless because of the economy, losing jobs and losing housing, [and] we expect that number to grow.”

In a survey conducted across the state on a single night in January 2010, Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness researchers found 3,829 homeless people living in shelters. Of these, 521 were adults in homeless families, a 23 percent increase from 2009. Sixty-eight percent of them had received at least a high school diploma. More than half claimed no mental health, substance abuse, or long-term medical issues, and nearly half had never been homeless before.

Carol Walter, the coalition’s executive director, said these numbers are a residual effect from the 2009 economic downturn.

“There’s a new generation of people experiencing homelessness,” she said.

Jim — who declined to give his surname, citing concerns about his reputation with prospective employers — said he thought he had done everything right. With a degree from the University of Connecticut and 13 years of $80,000-per-year work at Century Financial Services, Jim said he had enough to support his eight-year-old son, pay for an apartment in Branford and save for his eventual retirement. On Wednesday night he slept in an emergency homeless shelter — which takes in clients on a nightly basis.

Last year, Connecticut ranked fifth in the U.S. for highest cost of living. The state also faces one of the highest percentages of households which spend more than half of their income on rent.

In response to these conditions, City Hall is directing more emergency services for the homeless than any other municipality in the state, Cunningham said.

“The city has committed to making sure that there is a place for people if they are cold, if they are without stable housing to come in during the winter,” said Chisara Asomugha, New Haven’s community services administrator.

New Haven’s city-funded overflow shelter on Cedar Street began operations in November and is scheduled to end in April. The shelter, which is run by Columbus House, was forced to close ahead of schedule last spring because of budgetary issues.

Jameca Malloy, director of the Immanuel Baptist Shelter, said she faced problems with overcrowding before the overflow shelter opened. The church-organized shelter had to turn away six or seven men each night, she added.

Immanuel Baptist served 85 men on Monday night — well beyond their official capacity of 65. To meet the demand, men slept on couches and cots, Malloy said.

On Tuesday night, Columbus House served 84 people at the emergency shelter on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard and 85 people in the seasonal overflow shelter. Already over capacity, Columbus House set up 15 extra cots for women who have no other emergency shelter in the city.

Asomugha said one of the city’s biggest successes has been increasing awareness of the issue of homelessness.

“There’s not just one demographic or one stereotypical person that you think that homelessness is,” she said. “The idea that homelessness could affect us all provides us a way for residents to get involved.”

After seeing the poverty around him, Greg “Chanz” Simpkin, who runs Headz Up Barbershop on Whalley Avenue, said he decided to take action. Gathering members of the community, including the New Haven Police Department’s downtown district manager Lt. Rebecca Sweeney, Simpkin began a coat drive. Together, he said, they collected 700 jackets,

Simpkin said he intends to continue the coat drive every year.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counted 711 homeless people in the Elm City in a 2010 report.

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