Over 50 community members filled the aldermanic chambers to attend a Human Services Committee meeting Thursday night concerning New Haven’s 10-year program to address chronic homelessness in the city.
Initiated on March 1, 2007, the 10-year plan has struggled to meet its goals. Chronic homelessness has risen 1 percent since 2016, while episodic homelessness has risen 22 percent. Meanwhile, substance abuse and mental health issues among the homeless have both risen by 42 percent since 2016.
“The chasm between the rich and poor has never been greater, but neither the wealthy nor the city government cares about homelessness,” said Wendy Hamilton, a local activist and philanthropist. “They scheduled the meeting at the same time as the Christmas tree lighting. We’re an afterthought.”
Discussion began with testimony from Velma George, New Haven’s Coordinator for Homelessness, who updated the board on the state of homelessness since the committee’s September meeting. George said that all family shelters remain at capacity, and, as of this November, 116 families are on the waiting list for housing.
The committee expressed dismay and confusion at these reports due to recent state data, which appeared to indicate a decline in homelessness. Ward 4 Alder Evelyn Rodriguez asked what families should do after requesting shelter when the waiting list is already too long.
George took a moment before responding, “Well, that’s the million-dollar question.”
City officials also cited the opioid epidemic as a strain on local resources and a catalyst for homelessness in the Elm City. Jim Pettinelli, executive director of Liberty Community Services, said the destruction the epidemic has wrought on the community cannot be understated, noting that the rampant drug use has hit New England particularly hard in recent years.
“The opioid epidemic is one of the three largest epidemics in our lifetime,” Pettinelli said. “The annual death rate from opioids has reached levels witnessed at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the early ’90s.”
The committee also discussed the need for increased aid from nearby cities because hundreds of homeless people from the region come to New Haven for shelter, limiting City Hall’s funds for its own citizens.
Board members pointed to Chicago’s single-room-occupancy housing as a potential solution for those who remain homeless. Such housing situations are efficient because they require fewer government subsidies and rely more on zoning permits and financing from private banks.
Following the discussion, members of the public were allowed to voice their opinions and ask the committee questions about its plans.
“About 30 people die from exposure in this city every year, even though we have plenty of warm, empty buildings,” Hamilton said. “We need to save lives here, and the local hospital won’t even take the homeless, which is against their compassion policy.”
New Haven resident Greg Grinberg proposed a surtax on unoccupied property to reduce real estate speculation, an idea to which the committee responded favorably. Ward 26 alder Darryl Brackeen Jr. asked Grinberg to prepare a draft of his proposal to present to the committee at a follow-up meeting.
Multiple members of the audience who identified themselves as either homeless or previously homeless expressed their disapproval of the limited progress made so far, drawing particular attention to what they perceived to be widespread harassment of the homeless by New Haven police members.
Bealton Dumas, one of the homeless speakers, spoke out against alleged police harassment. He lamented the apathy of those he thinks are capable of inciting change, criticizing them for their complacency.
“Everyone is this close to becoming homeless themselves,” he stressed. “If you really care, ask yourself: What can I do?”
Quentin Staggers, a homeless man living downtown, said he was distraught about the lack of municipal support for improving housing situations in a practical manner.
“When you move a homeless person, it becomes a zoning issue — as if we’re buildings or property,” Staggers said. “We may be homeless, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to work. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to provide.”
Staggers suggested that the city levy a tax on Yale’s $27-billion endowment and that the profits go toward welfare to support the homeless. This idea coincides with the newly proposed Republican plan to tax private university endowments, which are currently tax-exempt.
According to the federally commissioned Point in Time Count, there were 3,387 homeless people in Connecticut on the night of Jan. 24.
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