As temperatures plummet and shelters brim beyond capacity, New Haven’s homeless are scrambling even harder to avoid bitter nights on the street.

Gov. John Rowland has added $615,000 in funding for shelters in this year’s state budget, but homeless advocates said yesterday at a rally on the New Haven Green that such measures are merely “stop gaps” for a pressing statewide epidemic. Protesters called for longer-term measures such as improved mental health community programs, which have been hit by a $14 million cut in the budget.

Workers at Columbus House, a shelter that can house 52 a night, said the occupancy rate there has increased 20 percent in the last four years. The city’s overflow shelter, usually operational only in the winter, has been open all year. And across the state, there has been a 53 percent increase in the number of people turned away from shelters, Columbus House Executive Director Alison Cunningham said.

“It’s intolerable across the state,” she said.

There have been no deaths in New Haven from the cold, only frostbite cases. But Cunningham said the crisis could reach a breaking point this week as temperatures drop.

“We can do a lot to help people,” Cunningham said. “But we can’t stop homelessness from happening.”

Mary McAtee, the executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said the state’s shelters need more funding, but she added that the state needs to focus on improving transitional housing and basic social services to prevent homelessness in the first place.

She said many of the homeless are people recently released from prisons, mental health facilities and hospitals who do not have families to rely upaon when they re-enter society.

“We appreciate [shelter funding] is in the budget. We don’t have to fight for it,” McAtee said. “We appreciate [that Rowland] understands there are many people under great duress.”

Rowland and spokesman Dean Pagani were not available for comment yesterday.

Maureen Edwards, an 18-year-old homeless woman with a 14-month-old child, was one of the roughly 30 people who attended the rally.

Edwards said she has been on the streets for seven months and has a reserved bed at a city shelter at a cost of $3 a day. She added that she sees people turned away from shelters every night

“They’ve got money to spend on everything, but they look at the homeless and we’re nobodies,” Edwards said. “Everyone’s got rights.”

Edwards has a regular place to return to every night, but she worries about the night she will not.

“I don’t want to spend a night on the street,” Edwards said. “I still have my life ahead of me.”

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