Daniel Zhao

Three years after New Haven organization Columbus House first partnered with Yale School of Architecture students to create homes for the city’s homeless population, the project is completing the fourth of five homes.

The five-year collaboration is a part of the Jim Vlock Building Project, a mandatory initiative begun in the 1960s in which first-year Master of Architecture I students design buildings. Over recent years, these projects have centered around issues of affordable housing and community developments in New Haven. In 2017, the school started an initiative with Columbus House on this project named Homeless: Housed. The project strives to create five multi-unit buildings in vacant lots across the city over the course of five years.

“When we first met, [Columbus House CEO] Alison Cunningham said, ‘We are Columbus House and our mission is to end homelessness,’ which I thought was the most kick-ass statement ever,” said Katrina Yin ARC ’19 in the film “A New Haven.”

Cunningham founded Columbus House in 1982 and has since endeavored to accomplish a gargantuan task: providing shelter, housing and services to overcome the root causes of homelessness in the Elm City. The organization relies on the help of a core community base, as well as government grants and contributions from businesses, foundations and individuals.

Since its founding, it has been able to expand its operations by creating new shelters and developing initiatives such as its Medical Respite Program, which provides recuperative treatments to homeless people being discharged from the hospital.

According to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, there are a total of 452 homeless people in New Haven. But in an interview with the News, John Brooks, chief development officer of Columbus House, said, “452 is just the number of sheltered and unsheltered that was counted. That’s the drawback of the count — there could be more.”

With construction of the fourth Homeless:Housed home underway, the organization has demonstrated a substantial step towards decreasing that number.

“We’re excited for the completion of the fourth house. This is the fourth year of the project and despite COVID, we’re looking to get two people housed,” Brooks said.

Each home is designed to be sustainable, low-impact and permanent. Architecture students consider two main goals when designing the homes: a sense of ownership for the new resident and finding the balance between public and private space within the home. The designers’ use of large windows, for example, intends to increase the amount of light entering the home and make the rooms appear larger.

In January, the building project group began selecting a final scheme for the 2020 project. In February, groups began presenting original concepts for a two-unit home to be located in Newhallville. This was followed by months of designing various aspects of the homes and their contexts.

Brooks cited one of the benefits of the program as the communication between students and clients. Compared to most architecture programs, where students design but may not build, students in the program, “get to talk to our clients, talk to people that aren’t housed, and they actually get to build the thing.”

But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the project had to adapt to imminent circumstances. The architecture students recognized the virus’s disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. In response, on July 6, they began working on nine different “socially-engaged” projects throughout the greater New Haven community.

This includes working on a Black Lives Matter street mural project, creating an adaptive reuse of the community park building for the “Ice the Beef” after-school program and designing an installation at the New Haven Free Public Library to be used as an accessible, external safe space.

But the house is still being built. While the original group is working on projects throughout greater New Haven, the building project told the News that second-year Master of Architecture I students “offered to help finish up the house.” Faculty members and subcontractors also began work on the house over the summer. They are “scheduled to be done by mid-October.” 

According to Rent Jungle, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom New Haven apartment is $1,528 as of August 2020.

Talat Aman | talat.aman@yale.edu