Gathered on the steps of City Hall in the bitter cold Thursday night, advocates for the homeless held flowers while they spoke and prayed by candlelight in memory of their friends, the two latest victims of the brutal New Haven winter.
Jill Harkins, 49, and Andrew Maciejewski, 47, died last month sleeping outside in New Haven.
A man delivering packages to the Columbus House homeless shelter found Harkins — who had been in-and-out of Columbus House — dead in an alleyway near Orange Street early in the morning of Dec. 23, said a woman who lived with Harkins at Columbus House and who asked to remain anonymous. New Haven police would not comment on the deaths Thursday night.
Although Harkins’ death certificate states her cause of death is “pending further studies,” sources close to Harkins said she died from cardiac arrest due to severe hypothermia.
Maciejewski was found dead outside a car in Fair Haven Dec. 27. His cause of death was also hypothermia.
Jennifer Jones, who spoke at the vigil organized by Respect Line, an advocacy group comprised of Yale students and homeless people, and one of Harkins’ closest friends, said she and Harkins had breakfast the day before she died and they planned a trip to the mall for the next day.
“When she didn’t show up we figured something had happened,” said Jones, also a resident of Columbus House. “I didn’t believe it at first. Denial was my first reaction. They told us it was a suicide, but when I talked to her [Harkins’] sister, she said it was her heart. She was having a lot of problems getting her medication.”
Harkins, a former nurse who was studying to regain her license, went to Columbus House to get her medication the night of her death. The shelter refused to give her the medication and did not let her spend the night, said the same anonymous woman.
“She had her problems and I believe that the staff and case workers [at Columbus House] were not giving her the proper treatment,” she said.
Alison Cunningham, the shelter’s executive director, said Harkins was not kept out of the shelter. Cunningham declined to elaborate further.
Perry, a former Columbus House resident who now lives in West Haven, said the shelter is notorious for kicking people out.
“The staff makes up any excuse to kick people out and some of them are legitimate, but a majority are not,” Perry said.
Perry said he believes this is not just a problem in New Haven, but that it is a problem in every city across this country.
“Governor Rowland is concerned about the budget and the deficit, but he doesn’t care about human life,” Perry said. “And [New Haven] mayor [John DeStefano Jr.], he’s passionate, but not compassionate. He doesn’t want to know why these people die. If I were mayor, I’d want to know why these homeless people die every year in my city.”
Melinda Heimback, another resident of Columbus House, called for Rowland and DeStefano to pay attention to the problems around them and help the homeless who are left in the streets.
“The mayor of this town and Rowland should be voted out because they do not care about the homeless and people with mental illness and substance abuse problems,” Heimback said.
Cynthia Pagano, who is also homeless in New Haven, agreed and said she thinks DeStefano is too busy looking at other things and not providing the proper help for the homeless.
“We had ‘Tent City’ and he walked right through and didn’t pay any attention to us out there,” Pagano said.
Respect Line has proposed a “No-Freeze Ordinance,” which would require all shelter facilities that receive support from the city to accommodate every person in search of shelter between November and April of each year. Respect Line leaders said this policy will insure the survival and safety of all New Haven residents during the winter season and “is a good step in the right direction.”
“We are very disturbed that, over the last month, other people who are homeless have found it necessary to sleep outside in New Haven during severe winter weather,” a Respect Line press statement said. “It is for this reason that we ask the people of our community to insure that everyone has a place to sleep in the winter.”
These deaths struck at the heart of those who knew Harkins and Maciejewski best.
“She [Harkins] was my heart,” Jones said. “Every morning we were together, laughing, trying to make light of our situation.”