Edward Lopez calls New Haven’s overflow shelter by 6 p.m. every day, if he is not already there, to reserve bed 202. Under the city’s 90-day length-of-stay policy, Lopez had to meet with a case manager within 30 days of his arrival at the overflow shelter. He can stay for a total of 90 days, although his case manager can give him an unlimited number of two-week extensions if he demonstrates progress. If he is asked to leave the shelter, he cannot return for another 90 days.
Created in September 2002 by the Homeless Advisory Commission for the City of New Haven, the 90-day policy pushes residents of city-funded shelters — the overflow shelter and Immanuel Baptist Shelter — toward independent living, said Ward 2 Alderman Ben Healey ’04.
According to an official city document regarding the length-of-stay policy, “shelters have become places where many individuals have stayed for long periods of time, in many cases years.” The policy encourages clients to find housing, employment, and treatment, if needed, so that shelters can accommodate newcomers.
Wesley Thorpe, executive director at Immanuel Baptist Shelter, said the shelter has turned away more than 25 people since September of 2002. More than 15 returned after three months and started the program over again.
“At least we got some to stay out,” Thorpe said. “[Even] if you get five or six to stay out, it is an effective policy.”
Respect Line, a homeless advocacy group, wrote in a position paper dated Oct. 2002 that the 90-day policy does little to establish stable living conditions for homeless individuals. The net effect, the paper claims, is that homeless people return to shelters after their length-of-stay period expires.
“Length-of-stay policies create a cycle,” said Magni Hamso ’04, who co-coordinates the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Project and serves on Respect Line. “People are pushed out of shelter into unstable positions,” she said.
Johnny Scafidi, program director at Dwight Hall at Yale, said sometimes shelter residents do not return, not because they have found employment and housing, but because “once you are turned away from shelter, you assume that door is closed.”
The shelters also lack resources to provide an ideal support system for clients, Healey said. The 90-day policy nominally provides shelter residents with bus tokens, laundry provisions and allowances for lunch. But Vanessa Brown, program manager at Immanuel Baptist Shelter, said recent budget cuts have prevented the shelter from offering these resources.
Scafidi said shelter residents do not receive adequate case management, which enables residents to meet with a counselor to establish personal goals.
“It is hard to find — and get an appointment with a case manager on such short notice,” he said. “They do not [even] hang out at the shelter. You have to — go seek them out.”
Even if shelters gave residents full support, homeless individuals would still have trouble finding employment and housing, Lopez said.
When Lopez applied for a job at a major pharmaceutical chain, he said he was told he was untrustworthy because he had not paid his credit card bills. But Lopez said he could not pay his bills because he lacked the income that a job provides.
“I would call this economic discrimination,” Lopez said. “It is hard to be unemployed and looking for a job carrying a duffel bag of dirty laundry.”
Lopez, a computer technician by trade, has created an online community resource guide that would help homeless individuals find housing, employment and other services. The Web site includes links to maps showing each service’s location. But he said he cannot find an agency to post his site, and he said The Consultation Center (TCC) — an organization that provides mental health services — has refused to look at it.
“[People at TCC] have not seen this,” Lopez said of his Web site. “They do not want to see it. The lady [there] told me it would make no sense to meet.”
Lopez also stressed that procuring housing can be difficult for the homeless and unemployed.
“Last time I went to a housing place, they said I could not get housing if I did not have a job,” Lopez said. “And it takes years to get through Section Eight lists.”
Section Eight certificate and voucher programs provides housing assistance to low-income people in the form of direct payments to private landlords.
Given these limitations, Respect Line claims in its position paper that homeless individuals cannot “tidy away” their problems in 90 days.
“During 90 days, you are supposed to get a job, save enough money to find an apartment and move out of the shelter,” Lopez said. “That is pretty damned impossible.”
But Healey noted that as long as shelter residents work with case managers on long-term goals, they can win an indefinite number of two-week extensions.