City weighs options for homeless

Inspired by the Occupy New Haven protest movement, various members of the local homeless community have petitioned the mayor’s office to set up long-term encampments on the New Haven Green.

That proposition was among those discussed at Wednesday night’s meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s human services committee, held to address possible encampments and homeless access to city services like seasonal shelters. Chairman of the Homeless Advisory Commission (HAC) John Huettner brought two resolutions to the floor, one addressing the Green proposition and another about resource allocation for homeless services in the city’s budget.

“There has been a constant chipping away at the community service and homeless budget,” Huettner told the committee. “So we’re having trouble being proactive, and we’ve assumed a maintenance-mentality — making it work with what we have.”

One of the HAC resolutions recommended that the committee dismiss the petition to allow long-term encampments on the Green, arguing that it would prove detrimental to the long-term social recovery of the homeless. Huettner added that the city’s homeless people have a responsibility to use official community and city shelters instead of open encampments.

HAC member Kevin Li ’14 said that the commission also opposed the long-term encampment plan because it neglects successful programs currently available to the homeless.

“There are so many existing support structures in place, and we want to show support for those,” Li said. “We don’t want to promote circumventing them.”

At the same time, he said, it is important to consider the reasons homeless people may find conditions in shelters unlivable and work on improving and expanding these existing structures.

The second resolution Huettner brought before the committee last night addresses these current programs, including both short- and long-term measures the Board could take to improve the conditions of homeless people in the city. Primarily emphasized in the list of six short-term recommendations was the maintenance and operation of the overflow shelter, which houses many homeless during the colder months.

Due to recent budget cuts, however, the shelter may have to decrease how long it operates and how many people it serves, Li and Huettner said. Should this happen, more people will have to sleep outside in the cold.

“We can budget certain dates [for the shelter to be open], but the weather doesn’t always cooperate,” Huettner said.

Another short-term recommendation that Huettner said he would like to see implemented is a Warming Center network. In it, participating Elm City residents with heated spaces would allow homeless people to come by and “warm up,” reducing their exposure to dangerous winter weather.

Despite his support of these measures, Human Services Committee Chair and Ward 26 Alderman Sergio Rodriguez said that the Board’s ability to fund social programs is at the mercy of recent aggressive budget cuts. Li said that this fiscal tightening has particularly hurt the chronically homeless.

Rodriguez recommended that the HAC not limit its search for funding to increasingly scarce grants, but rather follow the example of other homeless commissions throughout the country that invest in “social entrepreneurship,” a growing urban trend in which a business framework is used to raise money for social issues. Doing so would allow them to operate independently of constricted budgets, he said.

“We can’t rely on federal funding any more, so we have to set up a system that we do have control over,” he said. “We have to start moving toward self-reliance and taking more responsibility for ourselves — social entrepreneurship offers that sustainability.”

Ward 1 Alderwoman Sarah Eidelson ’12 made clear to Huettner that no policy could be enacted at the meeting because the resolutions would have to pass through the Board of Aldermen’s formal legislative process. The committee would also have to wait for the still-unnamed replacement of former Community Services Administrator Chisara Asomugha to join the discussion, Rodriguez added.

Discretionary spending for federally funded housing and community development programs is set to undergo an estimated 8.4 percent cut across the country this coming January, according to the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding.

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