New Haven officials gathered Thursday night to discuss solutions to two issues that have vexed the city in recent years: reducing homelessness and easing the transition from prison to civilian life.
The meeting was a workshop of the Board of Alders’ Human Services Committee that brought together alders, city administrators, police officers and residents in an effort to progress toward solutions to two of the city’s most pressing issues. The alders heard from New Haven Community Services Administrator Martha Okafor and Sgt. Roy Davis, the district manager for Downtown and Wooster Square. They outlined the strategies the city has pursued to reduce recidivism — relapse into criminal behavior after leaving prison — and homelessness.
Okafor spoke first, detailing the plans Mayor Toni Harp has proposed for cutting recidivism rates across the city. She described Harp’s plans for easing re-entry as an “innovative” new approach for the city, because they address the root cause of the problems.
“Our goal is in five years to cut down by 50 percent the recidivism rate of anyone who is coming out of prison with a New Haven address and is coming back into this city,” Okafor said.
Part of Harp’s plans involve implementing the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which Seattle adopted four years ago. Okafor said the LEAD program is part of what she called a “harm-reduction strategy” that aims to provide help to those who need it, rather than criminalizing them for their actions. This strategy will involve matching those with substance abuse problems with rehabilitation programs, Okafor said.
Okafor said that the city also plans to institute a program in prisons to teach inmates the skills they need to succeed after being released, in an effort to cut recidivism rates. She added that in-prison educational programs can help improve the employment prospects of recently released inmates, who often have poor literacy abilities.
The group also focused on homelessness — an issue especially prominent in the area surrounding Yale’s campus. But Davis said that although the New Haven Green has become the nexus of homeless activity in the city, New Haven may have more important problems to combat there.
“The homelessness, though it’s a problem, is not the biggest issue,” he said. “The biggest issue is — I don’t want to call it a black market, but that’s what it is. It’s like Times Square in the ’90s.”
Davis said people — many of whom are homeless — gather on the Green to trade goods like cigarettes, narcotics, watches and bus passes in a burgeoning contraband market.
The police force’s strategy for combating that black market does not lie in criminalizing the purchase and sale of black-market goods, Davis said. Instead, officers issue infractions for offenses like public drinking and urination, and cited citizens must either pay a fine or perform community service.
People typically will not pay the fine, Davis said, but are more willing to perform community service. He added that the city uses the community service for dual purposes — as the people charged with violations pay back their debt, the city will also offer them the opportunity to enter into counseling for substance abuse and other issues common among the city’s homeless.
But failing to complete the community service leads to harsher penalties, Davis said.
“The big picture is that, if you make a bad decision, you’re going to be held accountable,” he said. “But being held accountable doesn’t mean that you’re going to be criminalized.”
Ward 30 Alder Carlton Staggers, who works with the homeless and at-risk children through the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, said he agrees that the problems on the Green must be addressed. Noting the difficulties of establishing links with the homeless, he said that nonprofits in New Haven should collaborate in order to reach out to the population.
Edward Madison, a former alder who served as chair of the Human Services Committee, said that homelessness and recidivism are nothing new to the Elm City. He said the agenda for the meeting was highly similar to the agendas that he saw during his time on the committee.
But those problems might grow worse this year, Madison said. He added that the city will face a unique crisis this winter, as cold weather will force the population currently sleeping on the Green to relocate. The problem is compounded due to the recent loss of much emergency housing in Columbus House, a major New Haven homeless shelter.
“New Haven, like virtually every place in the country, deals with homelessness in the winter by just putting Band-Aids in together,” he said. “Unfortunately, this winter, it feels like the wheels are coming off our jerry-rigged solution.”
Okafor addressed Madison’s concern, noting that the city is currently working with Columbus House to find room to house additional emergency beds.
Roughly 25 percent of New Haven’s homeless population comes from outside the city.