New Haven has one week — and still tens of thousands of dollars to raise — before it causes nearly 100 homeless men, currently living in a shelter, to return to the streets.
The Overflow Men’s Shelter, which has been in New Haven for over a decade, is scheduled to close on April 30th. The seasonal winter shelter usually closes from May through October. This year, however, an ad hoc group of locals and students has stepped up to meet the challenge of keeping it open.
The Overflow Crisis Advisory Committee, or OCAC, met for the first time just over a month ago, and began exploring ways to come up with the $90,000 needed to keep the shelter open for the next six months. Ward 10 Alderman Ed Mattison LAW ’68, who helped organize the committee, said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has vowed to match up to $40,000 of whatever money OCAC raises by the end of the month.
The mayor’s office has yet to release a public statement on the matter.
Alison Cunningham, the executive director of Columbus House, the nonprofit agency contracted by the city to run the overflow shelter, said there has been increasing demand for the shelter over the past few years. Cunningham said that five years ago, people began to leave as soon as the weather warmed up. In the last two to three years, however, nearly all of the shelter’s 75 beds have been full in late April.
Columbus House needs $90,000 to run a “bare-bones” shelter for the next six months. Mattison said the city spends about three times this amount to keep the overflow shelter open during the fall and winter months.
Cunningham said such limited funds will inevitably cause cutbacks, and the shelter would be open for 12 hours of the day, not 16. Instead of having the usual two eight-hour shifts for three staff members, a bare-bones shelter would have two staff working one 12-hour shift.
Mattison said OCAC has raised about $9,000 in cash so far. In addition to the mayor’s promise of matching up to $40,000, Mattison said $20,000 has been tentatively promised by various organizations. He said the committee has pending applications for funding from still more groups — public and private — for another $30,000, but is still waiting to hear back.
Cunningham said Columbus House has agreed to extend the April 30 deadline if OCAC can come up with a reasonable amount by then. This way the committee can continue to raise money without having to close the shelter.
OCAC is organizing a benefit concert to be held this Sunday at the First and Summerfield United Methodist Church on College Street. The concert will feature a mix of performances by students, community members and homeless people, including Yale’s Shades a cappella group and a jazz pianist.
Respect Line, a homeless advocacy group, is also working to raise awareness of the overflow shelter situation and OCAC’s race to raise $90,000. For the last week, the group has been planting its colorful signs on the New Haven Green nearly every afternoon for “Street Theater,” an outdoor assemblage of artistic displays and performances by local residents, homeless people and students.
Although several members of Respect Line have joined OCAC, the activist group is traditionally much more radical than the young committee. Respect Line attracted attention last fall when it organized a “Tent City” on the Green in response to the closing of the overflow shelter. In 2002, the shelter remained open through the summer, but closed for September and October.
Whereas Respect Line tends to target the city and the state for action, OCAC is politically neutral. Mattison said the committee is not asking the city, which already spends $1.4 million annually on homelessness, to pay for the shelters added months of service.
“The city doesn’t own the homeless,” he said. “We all own the homeless. We all have a responsibility.”
Mattison said the mayor has not specified whether his $40,000 will come from the city budget, but OCAC would prefer funding from an alternate source if possible.
John Huettner, the special projects director for New Haven Community Services, said the city traditionally keeps the overflow shelter seasonal for financial and philosophical reasons. The high costs of transforming it into a permanent facility have been exacerbated by Connecticut’s budget crunch, he said, as a significant percentage of the money the city spends on social and health services comes from the state.
On the philosophical side, Huettner said the city tries to endorse policies that encourage people to work on the issues that caused them to become homeless. The hope is to offer these people incentives to lead them towards becoming self-sufficient. Conversely, Huettner said, just adding additional shelters beds really undercuts that effort.
“Either you’re going to warehouse people, or you’re going to try to help them improve themselves,” Huettner said, and the city’s philosophy is to help people help themselves.
Cunningham also said that emergency shelter is not the ultimate answer to the homeless problem, but New Haven needs to develop more long-term services, especially housing. As increasingly permanent solutions become more viable, Cunningham said, the need for the overflow shelter and other short-term solutions will decrease. Over time, New Haven can even close the overflow shelter, she said.
But for now, efforts are stronger than ever to keep it open.