Courtesy of Columbus House

The Elm City’s weeks-long effort to transfer New Haven’s homeless from shelters and streets to hotel rooms was supposed to be nearly complete by Monday. But on Sunday, West Haven’s police department issued a demand that derailed a state-negotiated and signed hotel contract which would have housed an additional 140 homeless New Haveners. 

The contract — the result of negotiations between Connecticut’s Department of Housing and Best Western of West Haven — was set to relocate about 80 remaining residents at Emergency Shelter Grand Avenue and Omega warming center and provide about 60 individuals without shelter accommodation with a safe place to physically distance, Community Services Administrator Dr. Mehul Dalal told the New Haven Independent. This would have brought the total number of hotelled homeless individuals to about 280, building on a Friday effort that emptied Columbus House — the Elm City’s largest shelter — as well as a first wave of relocations that focused on the elderly and immunocompromised. But plans fell through when West Haven Police Chief Joseph Perno delivered a letter to Best Western stipulating nearly $5,000 per day in police services, making the deal “prohibitively expensive” and forcing state and city officials to find an alternative, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker told the News. 

“The state’s been looking for sites all around the state to decompress homeless shelters and … move the homeless population out of homeless shelters and into hotels,” Elicker said in an interview. “The state identified the Best Western in West Haven and … finalized and agreed upon a contract …Then West Haven police showed up at Best Western and required them to spend just under $5,000 a day on West Haven police security [which] ended the deal.” 

In a letter obtained by the New Haven Independent, Perno told Best Western that the hotel would have to hire two police officers per day in order to “ensure the safety and well-being of those housed” at the hotel. Those costs — including $61.92 per hour per officer, $600 per day for use of a police vehicle, $606 per day for officer benefits and an 18 percent administrative fee — amounted to a total daily price tag of $4,930.23.

Perno could not immediately be reached for comment on Monday. 

This demand made the relocation effort impossible to complete, leaving Best Western Manager Eileen Poisson unsure of next steps. 

“I’m not really sure what’s going on at this point,” she told the Independent. Poisson could not be reached for additional comment Monday evening. 

State officials pursued the Best Western contract only after a similar deal in Elm City fell through, Elicker told the News. Now, the mayor is in contact with his counterpart in neighboring Hamden while the state also looks into Hamden hotel options. Elicker told the News that Hamden Mayor Curt Balzano Leng has been “collaborative and supportive” in trying to find a solution. 

Several city staff are supporting the state-led search, Elicker said. Dalal, who oversees the department responsible for New Haven’s homeless services, did not respond to a Monday request for comment. 

Homeless shelters, where residents sleep in close quarters and share communal living spaces, make the physical distancing required by the COVID-19 pandemic all but impossible. Given the inherent risks of congregant living, solutions for New Haven’s homeless population have been among Elicker’s top outlined priorities since his administration began addressing the novel coronavirus outbreak in earnest. Thus far, measures have included a soon-to-open, self-isolation site at Hill Career Regional High School for those who test positive for COVID-19, and hotel room rentals for asymptomatic individuals and those awaiting testing.

Following a March 28 order from Gov. Ned Lamont to decompress homeless shelters to a point at which physical distancing was possible, shelters across the state were set to close. One day prior, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had guaranteed Connecticut up to 75 percent reimbursement for COVID-19-related measures — unlocking federal funding that allowed the state to double down on existing homeless relocation efforts. Those efforts are run through the Coordinated Access Network, a coalition of homeless service providers across the state. 

New Haven had begun the hotel relocation process over a week prior to Lamont’s directive, renting 24 double-capacity hotel rooms to house 48 individuals on March 18. These early efforts focused on the most at-risk individuals, Columbus House Chief Development Officer John Brooks told the News. Around 20 of his shelter residents fit that profile. State funding housed an additional 36 individuals by March 24, and on Friday, the city successfully finished relocating the residents of Columbus House, bringing the total to just over 140. 

“Over the last two-plus weeks, we have worked diligently with city and state officials along with numerous partner agencies to ensure that we move every person out of our shelters and into hotels,” Columbus House Interim CEO Cindy Fox wrote in a Friday press release. “Fifty-eight additional people are now safely situated in a hotel and will no longer have to worry about being crowded into the shelter where it was almost impossible, despite everyone’s best efforts, to practice effective social distancing.” 

Amid the collapse of the state’s Best Western deal, city and state officials are working to provide the same safety and peace of mind to another 140 homeless individuals who were supposed to be housed at the West Haven hotel. 

According to a one-day count of New Haven’s homeless population run by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness in 2019, the Elm City’s homeless numbered 503. Data from the 2020 count is not yet available.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu

April 7, 6:11 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that the contract was set to relocate about 80 remaining residents at Emergency Shelter Grand Avenue and Omega warming center, not just residents at Emergency Shelter Grand Avenue.