Over the past week, the New Haven Green has begun to resemble a Yale FOOT trip. But those individuals sleeping out on the Green are not all Yalies bonding before school starts. The people sleeping out on the green are there partly in protest, but primarily out of necessity.
The coalition of Yale students and homeless individuals sleeping on the Green for the past week are there because on Sept. 11, the city of New Haven closed the overflow shelter. Used for emergencies the shelter is typically open during the winter months to ensure that no one is forced to sleep outside during the harsh weather and potentially freeze to death. However, in recent years, due to overwhelming demand the overflow shelter has been kept open year round.
On Sept. 10, the shelter was filled to capacity, and had been all summer. But city officials closed the shelter and forced over 30 men out onto the streets to fight for beds in an already overcrowded shelter system. The city defended the closure of the shelter by saying that it was necessary to crack down on abuses. New Haven wants to rid its shelters of individuals who have stayed in the system longer than the 90-day time limit, people who could find shelter elsewhere and those who have come to call the shelter home without developing plans for transition. City officials claim that by closing the shelter for two months (it will undoubtedly reopen in November when the weather gets bad) abusers will be forced to sleep with friends or family and find alternative refuge.
The homeless people sleeping out on the Green are clearly not abusers of the shelter. If they had somewhere else to go they would be in a warm bed instead of sleeping out on the cold grass.
The city’s actions are shortsighted and ignore the problem rather than trying to deal with it in an effective manner. The city hopes to decrease demand for temporary shelter beds by closing the overflow shelter. However, in reality, closing the shelter will not decrease demand for beds, it will only delay the inevitable. While the shelter is closed, individuals will find somewhere else to sleep. They will either sleep out on the Green, under a bridge, in a steam tunnel, or, if they are really lucky, with a friend.
In two months time when the shelter reopens, these alternative options will have been exhausted. As soon as it reopens, demand will once again skyrocket. People who have been forced to sleep outside will be more desperate for beds and shelter than ever before.
The city’s policy not only fails to meet its goal of cracking down on abusers, but also further exacerbates existing problems. The homeless population currently on the Green is not accustomed to sleeping outside and is not in good health. Three men have been hospitalized this past week, and one is still in the hospital for hypothermia. While the city may be conserving funds during these two months, they have been faced with the burden of paying for the ambulance and the medical fees of those three people who had to be admitted to the hospital.
To truly decrease the demand for shelter services, and in the long-term decrease the burden the city bears for caring for the homeless, real solutions need to be developed. The city of New Haven, along with service providers, needs to continue considering how to end the cycle of homelessness through intensive case management and an increased stock of transitional housing — not only for those who are mentally ill, but for those are unable to secure a job or live on the wage provided for them. The best way to achieve these goals and provide the services homeless people desperately need is through increased resources provided within the shelter system. Instead of closing the overflow shelter, the city should examine ways in which to free up beds by providing more transitional services and better case management.
The city of New Haven is right in believing that the long-term issue of fostering self-sufficiency needs to be pursued just as urgently. However, the achievement of these long-term goals should not be at the expense of innocent people who are camped out on the Green, just waiting for the overflow shelter to open yet again.
Diana Cieslak is a junior in Morse College. She is a co-coordinator of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project.