On the table Wednesday night in the Silliman Fellows Lounge were lasagna, black bean soup, salad — and a conversation about homelessness in New Haven.
After local leaders in homeless services spoke in psychology professor Michael Rowe’s homelessness seminar Wednesday, Rowe joined a few students and an intern from the Connecticut Mental Health Center over dinner to discuss issues faced by the homeless and the organizations who work with them. Organized by Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project as part of an awareness week, the dinner’s topics ranged from life after homelessness to the financial problems confronting local shelters.
Asked why some formerly homeless people feel pressured by their friends to return to shelters, Rowe said homelessness does not end with finding an apartment. For those accustomed to a day-to-day existence on the streets, adjusting to life in a house is a difficult process, he said.
“It’s all-absorbing surviving from day to day,” Rowe said. “Then suddenly you have a house. What do you do? — How do you make a house a home? How do you learn to be a housed person?”
Rowe and YHHAP coordinator Magni Hamso ’05 both cited cases of formerly homeless men who said they felt isolated after leaving the streets and did not like living alone. Rowe discussed an instance in which, two weeks after moving into an apartment, a man told his caseworker that he wanted to return to being homeless in order to have friends. Hamso mentioned that a formerly homeless man she met at the Tent City on the New Haven Green this fall is considering returning to a shelter because his friends have asked him to visit “just for a weekend.”
Sean Kidd, an intern at the Connecticut Mental Health Center — a facility operated by the Yale psychiatry department of the School of Medicine that provides clinical, psychiatric and support services to area residents — said moving one’s social life indoors can be especially tough for formerly homeless teenagers and young adults. After leaving the streets, they face an agonizing decision: whether to abandon their old social circle or to try and incorporate it into their new lives.
Meanwhile, homeless advocates are unsure how to help them make this social transition because the providers themselves don’t know which option is better, Kidd said.
Asked how he reaches out to homeless youth who might be distrustful of authority figures, Kidd said he tries to use an “empowerment approach.”
“You need to be neither an authority figure nor an adult,” he said. “You need to be seen as a means to an end — go and say, ‘What can I do for you?’ Don’t ask them what their problems are; ask how you can fix them.”
What homeless children and teenagers want most, he said, is for their problems to be understood.
“They want their voices heard,” he said. “They think people don’t get it.”
Kidd is currently involved in counting the city’s homeless population — a project organized by the New Haven Continuum of Care, a local interagency group — and said the final numbers would likely be higher than those from the last count and include more families and kids.
For Hamso, this makes one of YHHAP’s most recent projects — raising funds to keep the Overflow Men’s Shelter on Cedar Street open for the next six months — even more important.
After New Haven announced recently that it plans to close the shelter for the next six months, YHHAP joined other community organizations to form the Overflow Crisis Advocacy Committee and raise the $50,000 necessary to keep the shelter open through Nov. 15. If community members are successful in raising money and mobilizing volunteers, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will match funds up to $40,000 to cover the shelter’s total estimated operating costs of $90,000, Hamso said.