With both winter and homeless shelter closings looming, state Rep. Cameron Staples and Yale activists are stepping up efforts to resolve a crisis they said they see as inevitable without increased funding and attention from state and private sources.
A recent cut of $340,500 in the city’s budget for homeless programs is forcing New Haven homeless shelters to turn people away, according to a statement issued by the New Haven representative. In response, Staples has urged Gov. M. Jodi Rell to assess the state budget and identify untapped state funding sources for local shelters, even as Rell has called for cuts across the state budget. At the same time, coordinators of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project have launched a new initiative to raise both awareness and money to keep open the Overflow Shelter for homeless men, an extension of the Columbus House shelter in the Hill neighborhood, which they said will likely close this season.
Staples said that finding funds to keep shelters open should be a priority for the state government if cities are not able to support the aid.
“In the scheme of our budget, we should be able to find enough to make sure people are not freezing in the street,” he said in an interview.
Staples said that last week he asked Rell to review $30 million in the Department of Social Services budget to determine how much is available to support New Haven’s shelters. He added that funds in the energy assistance bill — a measure passed by the legislature in August that allows the Office of Police and Management to put aside up to $3.5 million for heating assistance to nonprofit organizations — could be released to relieve the burden of costs for the shelters.
He said this fiscal year is the first in “a long time” in which city homeless shelters will have to turn people away and even close. New Haven’s status as a welcoming haven for homeless people from all over the state justifies additional state funding, he said.
“I think it’s appropriate for the state to provide assistance to keep shelters open because shelters serve residents from the entire region, not just the city that they’re based in,” Staples said. “There’s no reason why taxpayers of the cities alone should [pay] without assistance from the state.”
Staples said Rell has been reluctant to tap into the rainy day fund, which he says is close to $1.5 billion. But he said he is hopeful for a positive response from the governor, despite her repeated calls for budget cuts because of an impending deficit. Most recently, Rell said two weeks ago that she expects the state to run a deficit of $304 million for the current fiscal year, although state Democrats have disputed the number.
“I don’t know what her reaction will be,” Staples said. “So far she’s been cutting budgets. But I’m hopeful I can get an agreement.”
Adam Liegeot ’94, a spokesman for the governor, said Rell is “aware” of Staples’ requests, but declined to comment further on the proposal. The governor, Liegeot added, spearheaded the winter heating program to help low-income residents get through the cold season.
“The bottom line from the governor’s perspective is that she’s aware of the situation in New Haven and throughout the state,” Liegeot said. “One thing you can be certain of is that Governor Rell will ensure, like in past years, that the people’s health and safety will be attended to this winter.”
The crisis has not gone unnoticed by Elis involved in fighting homelessness.
YHHAP co-coordinator Eliza Schafler ’09 said the group is hosting a series of events — collectively entitled Shelter Now — to raise awareness on campus, which she said she hopes will spark similar campaigns on other college campuses around New Haven. Schafler said YHHAP is also planning to reach out to University President Richard Levin to open a dialogue and potential partnership on the issue, possibly through matching funds raised in the drive.
“Because of the immediacy of the issue, this is an initiative to save lives,” Schafler said.
Schafler and co-coordinator Beth Reisfeld ’09 said 125 men could be left on the street if the Overflow Shelter closes. Reisfeld said she hopes the drive will involve students in a citywide issue.
“We’re working with community leaders,” she said. “But they have no ability to tap into the student population, so that’s our very unique position to reach out to the students.”
Schafler and Reisfeld said the campaign — which they hope will raise $20,000 — will culminate in the annual day-long YHHAP Fast in the third week of November, during which students can donate the cost of their dining hall meal swipes to the homeless.
Both Schafler and Reisfeld said they are optimistic about their $20,000 goal, especially as they plan to reach out to YHHAP alumni, graduate schools, athletic teams and other universities. They said all the money raised will go directly to the Overflow Shelter to pay for food, staff and security. Schafler and Reisfild added that, because they are working with experienced community leaders like Alison Cunningham, the director of the Columbus House, which provides services to the city’s homeless population, they are confident the money will be used wisely.
YHHAP is holding its first Shelter Now meeting tonight at 9 o’clock in Dwight Hall.