For the past week, homeless people and student advocates have been sleeping on the New Haven Green to protest the Sept. 11 closure of New Haven’s overflow shelter.
It’s unfortunate the city is shutting down the center, which serves many homeless people from New Haven and the surrounding areas. But the most distressing part of the situation is that there is no solution in sight.
Typically, the city can afford to keep the shelter open only between November and April, but this year officials stretched their resources far enough to maintain the operation for most of the summer. It’s hard to fault city officials for closing the center after running it for four months longer than they had announced, although choosing to close it on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks was inexplicably bad form.
What’s more questionable is the city’s stated rationale that closing the center will provide homeless with an incentive to find independent housing. With the closing of the shelter, New Haven has enacted a “length of stay” policy, which requires those staying for more than 30 days to present a plan to live self-sufficiently. This tough-love approach might work in some cases, but it’s unlikely to be effective in its current form for many occupants. A recent study showed than more than half the single men have substance abuse problems, and many others have serious untreated psychological problems.
Another concern is that the case workers charged with helping shelter occupants regain independent housing have proven inadequate. Even occupants without major drug or psychological problems are struggling to get out of the shelter because they receive substandard guidance from the city.
Repairing the process in a meaningful way requires increased funding, both for better counselors and specialized options for substance abusers. But the city simply doesn’t have the money to pay such a bill. Officials have already overextended themselves to keep the facility open, and New Haven is receiving no compensation from neighboring communities that benefit from the shelter. The only logical options are to cut other social servicesor increase taxes. The latter is politically and economically infeasible, and most other social services are as in desperate need of funding as the shelter.
The long-term answer might be to apply for more money from the state, but state leaders are facing severely constricted budgets of their own. Gov. John Rowland is already looking to cut other social services just to keep the government going.
For now, the city needs to be forthright about its reasons for closing the shelter. Citing the decision as part of a larger effort to help the homeless obfuscates the reality that the city simply doesn’t have the money to keep the shelter open. Officials have done everything possible, and in these economic times we can all understand their challenge.
One sophomore sleeping on the Green said the group of students was there both to get angry and to ensure that no one ends up sleeping under a bridge. The latter sentiment is laudable, but in this case there’s no one to get angry at. That’s just what makes the situation so sad.