Sylvan Lebrun, Contributing Photographer

Equipped with board games, computers, coffee and doctors on call, Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen’s drop-in center for people experiencing homelessness opened this April. The center is the first stage of the organization’s development of their new building at 266 State St.

In December of 2020, Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen — or DESK — purchased their very own building after decades operating out of the basement of a local church. Over the following months, they renovated the space to set up their new hub. For three hours each afternoon, Sunday through Friday, the center provides New Haven’s homeless population with a place to rest, socialize and be connected to resources. The opening of the Drop-in and Research Center is the first step of DESK’s plan to move all of its services to the new location. 

“What our folks really needed was a place where they could access our services more readily, on their own time, on their own terms,” Steve Werlin, executive director of DESK, told the News in an interview. 

For several years now, DESK has worked to expand its operations beyond its original soup kitchen. In great part, this includes bringing case managers, doctors and psychiatrists to the nightly meal services, which have traditionally been held at the Parish House of the Central Church on the Green. 

Planning started in 2018 for the creation of a dedicated DESK space to provide clients with additional support services. Last winter, aided by both increased donations and falling real estate prices amid the pandemic, DESK moved to purchase a building of its own. 

DESK’s board eventually settled on a three-story colonial revival building on State Street, which had a past life as a dog grooming salon. The building’s first floor opened in time to function as a cooling center before the hottest days of the summer. 

Werlin said the purpose of the drop-in center’s hours, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., is to offer clients a place to go outside of meal hours. Many, he said, remain at the center for the entirety of the afternoon, walking to DESK’s dinner service location on Temple Street together in groups with staff members. 

The drop-in center occupies the building’s entire first floor, with medical care provided on the second. In the future, DESK plans to convert the second floor into a series of offices for workers from other local service providers. The third floor serves as office space. 

Dinner services are also scheduled to move into the space, although Werlin shared that the timing depends on COVID-19 rates. Their current dining service is outdoors and grab-and-go only.

The drop-in center currently offers coffee, tea and snacks and has tables where visitors can sit and play a card or board game. DESK also provides computer access, telephones, charging stations and lockers for all guests. 

Interior of the drop-in space (Photo: Sylvan Lebrun, Contributing Photographer)

Partner organizations have already begun to contribute to the drop-in center, fulfilling one of the primary goals for the space. Medical providers including Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center and BHcare visit on designated days, conducting exams and minor treatment on the second floor. Drop-in center clients can sign up to shower and do their laundry at the nearby Liberty Community Services building. Outreach workers from the homelessness nonprofit Columbus House also stop by both to visit old clients and find new ones. 

Since the center opened, site coordinator Adam Kirk said the DESK team has found a promising space to improve the quality of service it offers. The new space, he said, has allowed DESK staff members to work one-on-one with clients to help them access services. 

“From the beginning, we were offering to help people with applications, help people find employment, help people with basic preparation before getting a housing voucher…we would do the smaller things,” Kirk said. 

William Bramon, who visits the drop-in center every day, shared that the staff members were the ones to encourage him to go back to school to become a certified minister.

“They will literally all break their back, just to help you get your ID, your birth certificate, help you apply for your state phone if you need it,” Bramon said. “They’re very knowledgeable. And if they don’t know, they know how to find out.”

Attendance at the drop-in center has steadily increased since its opening. At first, only 10 to 15 individuals would stop by each day. This week, the daily rate has increased to some 25 to 30. Most of the visitors at the center are regulars, according to Kirk, with many coming back almost every day. 

According to Joshua Makhanlall, another regular visitor at the drop-in center, the space has above all provided an avenue for creating valuable social connections. 

“I come here to sit and relax, to be with people,” Makhanlall said, just having finished a card game with a staff member. 

Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen began offering meals on the New Haven Green in 1987. 

Sylvan Lebrun is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor, and covered City Hall and nonprofits and social services in the New Haven area. She is a junior in Pauli Murray College majoring in Comparative Literature.