Sadie Bograd, Contributing Photographer

As winter approaches, many of New Haven’s homeless service providers are concerned that the city is unprepared. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal funding enabled the city to house residents in nearby hotels. Now, the city is back to relying on congregate shelters — but continued COVID-19 restrictions and limited resources have reduced the total number of beds available. Homelessness rates, meanwhile, have risen due to COVID-induced job losses, inflation and a lack of affordable housing. 

“The problem is we have too much demand and not enough supply,” said Kellyann Day, CEO of New Reach, which offers homelessness prevention and emergency shelter services in New Haven. “We do not have enough shelter beds for families and individuals that truly are homeless and have no place to go, and we do not have enough housing stock that is affordable to move people out of homelessness.” 

A shortage of spaces

Before the pandemic, the city had 285 shelter beds available for homeless residents during the winter, according to Steve Werlin, executive director of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, or DESK. This year, Werlin said that there are 175 beds.

The main reason for this decrease is the closure of the Emergency Shelter Management Services shelter on Grand Avenue. Werlin said the ESMS shelter used to have 75 beds for adult men, but the city stopped funding it during the pandemic. 

Other shelters are operating at reduced capacity due to pandemic restrictions. Columbus House’s overflow shelter, for example, will offer 40 beds instead of its usual 75. 

Columbus House CEO Margaret Middleton explained how difficult it is to make a “Sophie’s choice” between getting people out of the cold and adhering to public health guidelines.  

“In civil society, we’ve sort of adopted this [attitude of] ‘COVID doesn’t exist anymore,’” Middleton said. “But the reality is our client population is really high-risk. They tend to have chronic health conditions. They have an unknown vaccine status … And so we really have to take the potential for infection really, really seriously.” 

At the same time, statewide rates of homelessness have increased for the first time in nine years, with the total number of unhoused people rising from 2,594 to 2,930. Day attributed this shift to “landlords increasing rents, inflation, the lack of jobs that pay livable wages” and pandemic-related job loss.

As it did before the pandemic, the city is providing funding for homeless service providers to open warming centers starting in mid-November to mitigate the lack of shelter beds. DESK is operating a warming center, as are a variety of faith-based providers. Werlin said these warming centers will create space for another 120 clients in New Haven.

Werlin emphasized, however, that warming centers are not the same as shelters. 

“If you’ve ever slept in an airport, it’s kind of like that,” Werlin said. “It gives people a way to get out of the cold. Most of them don’t have beds. They don’t have showers. You don’t have places to store your stuff. At best, maybe they’ll have yoga mats that people can lay down on the floor.” 

He added via email that it is difficult for clients to get a good night’s sleep at a warming center, often leaving them too exhausted to “discuss the housing process, substance use treatment, job searches, or court appearances.” 

Shelters, too, are not always comfortable spaces, according to Pastor Philip Boone of the Cathedral of Higher Praise, a New Haven church that also operates a food pantry. Boone said that people often sleep outside around his church because they find shelter services insufficient. 

“The places are not clean, and you can’t watch your stuff, people steal from you,” Boone said. “They don’t want to go to places where they’re going to lose what they have.” 

New Haven’s Community Services Administrator Mehul Dalal MED ’09 said that all shelters and warming centers have employee supervision.

Werlin noted that different shelters and warming centers have “different atmospheres” and  varying rules. DESK’s warming center, for example, allows people to come and go throughout the night, while others will not let people re-enter once they have left. 

As a result, Werlin said DESK can be more accessible for people with substance use disorders, but also “a little bit more difficult to manage.” All DESK staff are trained in first aid, Narcan administration and conflict de-escalation. 

However, Werlin agreed with Boone that there will likely be some residents who don’t feel comfortable in either a shelter or a warming center — or who get turned away because of a lack of spaces.

“It’s going to be a very difficult winter for individuals and families that have no place to go,  because we do not have enough crisis services to meet all of the needs,” Day said. 

Compounding crises

Shelter operators affirmed that the city does not have enough funds to adequately support shelter services. 

Middleton noted that for the third year in a row, the state legislature is supporting municipalities’ winter emergency services through temporary pandemic funding. She described this as a positive change, although the funding mechanism is not permanent. And, as opposed to the last two years, the funding will not go towards housing homeless people in hotels.

Overall, Day said that shelters are doing as much as they can with insufficient public funding. New Reach also relies on private fundraising, but the struggling market has reduced the amount of available philanthropic dollars. 

Dalal said that the city’s “longer-term vision is to identify stable and long-term housing for individuals, so we actually reduce our reliance on warming centers and shelters.”

But in addition to a lack of emergency services, New Haven is facing a housing affordability crisis that makes it difficult for people to move out of shelters and into long-term housing. Connecticut has the lowest rental vacancy rate in the country, and New Haven has the third-lowest rental vacancy rate of all major metropolitan areas nationwide. Day said that even when people have housing vouchers, they can’t always find an available, affordable unit. 

Day added that the development of permanent supportive housing has slowed in recent years. In addition to increased funding from all levels of government, she called for regulatory changes so that it doesn’t “cost twice as much and take twice as long” to develop supportive and affordable housing as compared to private sector housing. 

Middleton also said she thought that the city ought to put more of a priority on affordable housing development. She pointed out that it took considerable resident advocacy before the city allocated a significant portion of its American Rescue Plan funds to housing.

Beyond New Haven, Middleton said that zoning policies in other Connecticut towns also present a major barrier to building affordable multifamily housing statewide. 

“Until people who live in suburban Connecticut, like I do, start to feel like the housing affordability crisis matters to them … and they start to see it as being our community’s problem and not just a problem that affects people downtown, we won’t really own a collective solution,” Middleton said.

As of 2020, New Haven had 987 total permanent supportive housing units, according to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness’ annual report.

Sadie Bograd covers Nonprofits and Social Services. Last year, she covered City Hall. Originally from Kentucky, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in Urban Studies.