As a bitter cold spell lingers in New Haven, the city’s homeless are trying to cope. And so are the shelters.
Immanuel Baptist Shelter and Columbus House both experienced a jump in the number of homeless people seeking shelter within the past two weeks. The Outreach and Engagement Team — an inter-agency group that works to bring homeless people to shelters — recently added weekends to its schedule because of the cold.
And family shelters in the city remain at full capacity.
Wesley Thorpe, executive director of Immanuel Baptist Shelter, said his shelter reached maximum occupancy last week.
“Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I had to stay open all day so [the clients] could stay during the day,” Thorpe said.
Thorpe said his shelter has 75 beds, all of which were full for several days. Last weekend, however, the demand dropped slightly, freeing up about three beds on Saturday and Sunday, he said.
“We don’t turn anybody away,” Thorpe said. “Everybody had a place to stay that came to the shelter.”
Alison Cunningham, executive director of Columbus House, said the cold weather brought in more clients than usual. Together with the Overflow Shelter, which Columbus House also operates, Cunningham’s agency has 155 beds. And like Immanuel Baptist Shelter, neither Columbus House nor the Overflow Shelter turned anyone away.
“Every winter we’re concerned about people,” Cunningham said. “It’s especially frightening this year with the temperature so low.”
Though Immanuel Baptist Shelter and Columbus House were able to take in everyone who needed a warm place to stay, the cold weather put a strain on the agencies’ human and financial resources. Staff worked extra hours to keep the shelters open during the day — Columbus House, for example, normally closes at 8 a.m.
The Outreach and Engagement Team has also augmented its efforts to brace New Haven’s homeless population against the cold. The team, which consists of five agencies and is coordinated by the Connecticut Mental Health Center, added weekend shifts to its regular weekday schedule, said Debbie Fisk, the center’s director of community-based clinical services.
During outreach runs, team workers go out into New Haven looking for the homeless. They search under highway bridges and in other outdoor sites, as well as in public places, including Union Station, where homeless people tend to congregate. They also visit soup kitchens and shelters, Fisk said. When the team finds homeless people, they try to persuade them to enter a shelter.
Fisk said the Outreach and Engagement Team started its weekend shifts about two weeks ago, when some volunteers decided to work on Saturday and Sunday because it was so cold. Fisk said the team has since recrafted its schedule to include weekends, and the added shifts have already brought to shelters five people who had been sleeping outside.
Christian Community Action and Life Haven, agencies that provide services for families, have not been directly affected by the cold spell.
Albert May, director of development for Christian Community Action, said the weather does not have much of an impact on his shelter because the families stay there for two to three months at a time. May said his agency did receive an increase in calls that coincided with the recent cold weather, but it did not have the capacity to help all of the callers.
Rachel Heerema, executive director of Life Haven, said her organization’s shelter has consistently remained at capacity for the past several years. She said the shelter has room for 20 families, and while that number remains static, the amount of people that Life Haven must turn away is on the rise.
Both Heerema and May said they have witnessed a trend of increasing numbers of turn-aways, regardless of weather patterns.
“I would say that we would have to turn away maybe 50 families a week, whereas a year ago, it may have been something like 20 families a week,” May said.
Heerema referred to a study done by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, which gathers information from state-funded emergency shelters. She said the study found the number of times people were turned away from shelters in 2001 was 20,335. That was an 81 percent increase from 2000. Heerema said the coalition has yet to release statistics for 2002, but “from my experience, I think we’ll have a similar jump.”
Cold weather is an immediate problem, but, as Heerema pointed out, limited shelter space represents a more substantial obstacle.
“There’s no good time of the year for a mom with an infant to be living outside,” she said.