James Larson, Senior Photographer

When she was 16, Alexa Davila was kicked out of her family’s New Haven home by her own parents. Foster home after foster home after foster home came and went, but she still had no stability and nowhere she felt welcome. She moved in with an ex-boyfriend, but soon faced domestic violence and once again was left to figure it out on her own.

And in March of this year, as Davila was shuffling from place to place, COVID-19 struck New Haven.

Davila is one of an estimated 4.2 million 18 to 25 year-olds that experience homeless every year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In January of 2020, the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness counted 503 people experiencing homelessness in the city of New Haven in a single night. Amid the pandemic, Davila is one of hundreds of youth to confront new changes to the various programs they rely on.

In late spring, as the pandemic began to spread throughout New Haven, Davila said shuffling between friends’ houses became much harder once people started to quarantine, so she called 211 — the social services help line. She said they were not able to provide her with aid for over two months. When they did respond, they set Davila up with Youth Continuum, an organization designed to provide aid specifically to homeless youth.

“Every help I tried to get, they never led me the right way,” Davila said. “The pandemic made it much, much harder to get in contact with anyone. Everybody was locked in their house, no one wanted me to come over. I’m just blessed to have the opportunity to have a bed now.”

Tim Maguire, Director of Housing Programs at Youth Continuum, said the pandemic has forced everyone in his line of work to change their protocols. He said the organization immediately had to reduce the capacity of its crisis housing units at its shelter, which Davila and dozens of other homeless New Haven youth use. Youth Continuum was also pressed to open an isolation facility, a wing dedicated to newcomers so that they can quarantine before accessing the rest of the facility, and reorganize the layout of its shelter to accommodate state-mandated social distancing protocols.

“It was hard, but we never had to stop bringing young people into crisis housing,” Maguire said. “We got them in and got them out as fast as possible.”

Maguire also said he was impressed by the immediate attention the issue of homelessness received both city- and state-wide once the pandemic first broke out. He said that thanks to the considerable government aid, which included increased access to testing and the formation of groups which helped organize sending those in need of housing to various cities, Youth Continuum has only had one shelter guest and a few staff members contract the virus since the beginning of the outbreak. Maguire added that none of these cases were contracted at Youth Continuum facilities and the organization was able to provide a space for the guest to quarantine within the shelter for a 14-day-quarantine.

Maguire said that during the past few months he has noticed an upsurge in community support to help for the city’ smost vulnerable residents.

“We were really worried about what this pandemic would do to our population and if it would run rampant,” Maguire said. “And the reality is that it did not.”

The Youth Continuum’s youth outreach group, the Youth Action Board, is made up entirely of youth who have personally experienced homelessness. Marina Marmolejo, the board’s leader, said that people often overlook the difference in experience between youth and adult housing insecurity — a difference that has only worsened during the crisis. 

According to Marmolejo, homeless youth have suffered from the closure of so many businesses and areas they could use to stay warm, charge their devices or even just feel safe. Larger society, Marmolejo added, has failed to see that as society has ‘gone virtual,’ homeless youth haven’t received the resources needed to participate in the new spheres of education.

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“A lot of young people who are unstably housed don’t have the technology that would allow them to participate in this new society,” Marmolejo said. “Overall I think policies and interventions and programs that are coming out have to be really conscious [of] who their entire audience is.”

Despite the expansive city-wide response to aid homeless populations since the pandemic began, both Maguire and Davila expressed concerns about what the combination of COVID-19 and a New Haven winter might have on those experiencing homelessness. Maguire said his organization will have to cut down on capacity of the warming centers it usually offers during the winter and other shelter services. To combat this, he said the Youth Continuum is in the process of collaborating with fellow shelters and organizations that work with the city’s homeless community to establish more warming centers.

“I’m really worried,” Davila said. “With winter coming, I don’t want to be left out in the cold and get sick. There’s a lot of stuff I’m trying to prepare for and just don’t know how to.”

Dyuthi Mathews Tharakan ’22, Leader of Advocacy and Publicity at Y2Y New Haven, a student-run overnight program for housing-insecure youth, encouraged Yale students to work outside the bounds of on-campus organizations to contribute to the city’s efforts to combat housing insecurity.

“I see a lot of Yale students who want to give back to New Haven and get out of that Yale bubble,” Tharakan said. “I encourage them to look beyond just the organizations Yale has to offer, because there are many across New Haven.”

Back at the Continuum, Davila has a job and resides within the shelter’s semi-permanent crisis housing unit. She said her experiences with homelessness and housing insecurity have heavily influenced her plans for the future. She said she wants to use the Youth Continuum’s programs to build up credit and start her own organization that combats homelessesness. She envisions an organization that offers shelter, education resources, day care services, job training — everything she wished she had for so many years. She wants to help everyone in the city of New Haven to be treated the same, especially as this pandemic leaves homeless youth more vulnerable than they have ever been before. 

“A lot of people like me that experience [homelessness] always go to the street life,” Davila said. “They get comfortable in a life they think was chosen for them. But that’s not true. My goal is to become better in my situation so I can help my youth and let them know they’re not alone.”

The Youth Continuum drop-in center is located at 924 Grand Avenue.

Thomas Birmingham | thomas.birmingham@yale.edu

Bennie Anderson | bennie.anderson@yale.edu