Before he became eligible for Social Security payments, David Donovan spent his days collecting cans and bottles on the New Haven Green. But the $20 he made every day was not nearly enough to cover rent in the city.

Though he can now afford housing through a state program known as Connecticut Collaborative on Re-entry, he still remembers his time in the city’s shelters — especially Emergency Shelter Management Services on Grand Avenue.

“It was something I had to do,” Donovan said. “But it was poorly run, dirty, with bedbugs everywhere.”

Formerly known as the Immanuel Baptist Shelter, the male-only establishment on Grand Avenue has faced a litany of complaints in recent years. In November, the Connecticut Bail Fund called for the demolition of the “unsanitary” and “overcrowded” shelter in a petition associated with the Housing Not Jails march. Even in 2014, the New Haven Independent reported that the shelter was in a state of disrepair, with leaking toilets, peeling paint and missing tiles.

Despite multiple requests for comment, the News was unable to reach Arnold Johnson, executive director of the Grand Avenue shelter, to gain permission to enter. Employees at the shelter cited residents’ right to privacy and directed comment to Johnson.

One homeless man on the New Haven Green, who requested anonymity to avoid reprisal from the city’s shelters, echoed Donovan’s account of the conditions at the Grand Avenue shelter. He had stayed at the shelter for about a week before its bedbug problem forced him to leave.

“I had to throw some of my clothes away,” he said. “I would rather be sleeping outside on bus stops.”

Together, the city government and local nonprofit organizations provide a comprehensive system of services for homeless people in the area. Aside from Emergency Shelter Management Services, shelters such as Columbus House and Martha’s Place offer programs for substance abuse, HIV/AIDS and mental illness.

Bonita Grubbs DIV ’84, executive director of Christian Community Action, said that her agency’s Hillside Family Shelter at 124 Sylvan Ave. focuses on maintaining families’ long-term security to ensure they do not fall back into homelessness.

“Ending homelessness is not just getting out of the system of care,” Grubbs said. “It is providing people with the opportunity to become stabilized or to have a better outlook, more hope and, beyond that, an end to the trauma they have experienced.”

Grubbs emphasized the strength of the relationship between families and their case managers, called “family coaches.” Christian Community Action’s system of “motivational interviewing” was designed to give households an active role in the rehousing process, with coaches helping to identify training opportunities and affordable locations.

Lisa Tepper Bates SOM ’09, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, stressed that shelters should focus on finding housing for individuals swiftly. Since her end goal is to eliminate homelessness entirely, she said that the ideal shelter is no shelter at all. Barring that, shelters should be safe, have low barriers and provide the services clients need.

“The bottom line is … that shelters across the state do the best they can. We want all shelters to be clean and safe … the best thing we should do with those resources is to get people housing,” Bates said when asked about complaints about some New Haven shelters.

According to the website of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the Connecticut Collaborative on Re-entry was founded specifically to help house “high utilizers” of shelters and jails. Donovan, who was sitting in the New Haven Public Library on Wednesday afternoon, said that Columbus House had connected him with the collaborative, then known as Frequent Users System Engagement. Yet he was left on a waitlist for five years before finally being selected, he added.

Connecticut residents can call 211 to be connected to local social services providing food, housing and child care.

Will Wang |