Courtesy of Mark Colville

Tyrell Jackson and Kathy Mire have been living in a tent city in the West River neighborhood for six months. It’s not ideal, they said, and there is the occasional robbery. But they still found the situation generally better than living on the street, as in the tent city they at least have a place to “gather themselves.”

Now that winter is coming, Jackson and Mire are doing everything they can to stay warm, layering multiple tents for insulation and staying close to preserve body heat. While the tent city residents wait for local warming centers to open, they say that they hope that the city will provide more resources during this harsh winter.

Unhoused people in New Haven are now speaking up about winter resources by joining the Unhoused Activists Community Team, or U-ACT. They are asking Mayor Justin Elicker to change city policies regarding the treatment of low-income people who use public spaces.

“Our current campaign is designed to pressure [the mayor] to make some big real policy around respecting people’s human rights to take refuge in [public space].” Mark Colville of Amistad Catholic Worker House and one of U-ACT’s founders said. “To me, that is the essential change that needs to happen in order for the city to move from the reality that we are in now, which is basically an approach that’s driven by the denial of human rights.”

What is it like to be homelessness in New Haven?

Eric Carrera has been homeless for 14 years. Last year, he said that six people that he personally knew froze to death.

“I’ve had a lot of people die not just because of it being cold, but because of addiction.” Carrera said. “I think I’m no longer in that boat. I am eight months clean as of October 31 this year. It is a struggle and it’s a big hard thing to get rid of and to get done.”

Carrera said he has tried everything he could in order to find housing, but the results have been frustrating. For the past month, he has been living in the West River tent city with his husband.

Their daily routine involves waking up at 5:30 a.m. to go to a health appointment at the APT Foundation. Afterwards, they stay in a public library till 1 p.m., and then go to DESK from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. for dinner, returning to their tent for the night at around 10 p.m.

“It’s a lot of walking, a lot of stress on my feet.” Carrera said. “And then we do it all over again. It’s recurring every day and every day, but it’s fun, because I have [my husband] to help me.”

Carrera said the couple is close to getting a Section 8 housing voucher.

Jackson and Mire relied on the warming center at Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen to endure through the last winter. According to Mire, the warming center is open from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and can accommodate up to 50 people.

“You have to wait in line at night and every day is a shot in the dark.” Jackson said.

Jackson noted that if “there’s a disturbance before everyone gets in,” then the center will stop letting people in. According to Jackson, the warming center does not have a screening process or security, which means sometimes they have to “remove” a few people and be on the watch to make sure they don’t come back.

Jackson recalled that on his first night at the warming center, he had to physically restrain another guest to stop them from attacking an old woman.

“Since I’ve been in warming centers, I would say that I’ve had to regulate at least seven situations, like I personally have had to put my hands on people,” he said. 

Mire said that they have received housing vouchers recently, but have struggled to find a landlord who will accept the voucher, leaving them unhoused in the interim.

What does U-ACT demand?

Billy Bromage of Witness to Hunger and Evan Serio of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, the co-founder of U-ACT, said he started U-ACT after three colleagues reached out and suggested that he should organize unhoused people to share their stories and push for changes in city policy.

In the meeting last Wednesday, U-ACT summarized their demands, which included access to free public storage lockers and clean restrooms and showers with full-time, year-round hours. 

They also demanded an end to discriminatory practices including homeless profiling in public libraries, evictions from public spaces without due process and the use of police action against the unhoused as anything beyond a last resort. 

Lastly, they urged the city to legalize tent cities, as well as to take inventory of and preserve any confiscated personal property.

New Haven community services administrator Mehul Dalal, who oversees the Office of Housing and Homeless Services, told the News that the city invested one million dollars in homelessness prevention and rapid housing in 2021. Dalal said that the city also opened navigation hubs that provide phone charging stations, showers, laundry and other basic services during evening and weekend hours.

According to Dalal, there have been over 2,000 visits to the navigation hub. In addition, the city also runs One Stop Pop-up, a mobile initiative that provides mobile shower services, health care, harm reduction services and access to case management services for unsheltered individuals.

Bromage said he personally thinks the navigation hubs are fantastic, but their function is limited by their operation hours.

“That really is something that should be available to people when they need it. Rather than at the time that’s convenient for a social service provider.” Bromage said.

As to the question of tent city legalization, Dalal said that though the city has not legalized tent cities, the city wants to work with them instead of relocating them, and it’s “accommodating to the best of [their ability] right now.”

Colville said that the West River tent city was created in 2019 when the city closed all shelters and the homeless population doubled during the winter. Colville claimed that shelter bed shortages among local social service agencies have sent more people to tent cities.

There are approximately 30 to 35 people living in the tent city by Ella T Grasso Blvd in West River. Colville has also turned his backyard and his neighboring daughter’s backyard into a tent city, which currently hosts approximately eight people.

According to Colville, tent cities are a very effective means of transitional housing. Having worked with homeless people for decades, Colville explained to the News that homelessness often places people in a situation where they feel that they must compete with others instead of cooperating, because “they are thrown on the street without rights.”

“The main problem that homeless people deal with is how to secure their things, their material possessions.” Colville said. “When you don’t give people land or a place to be the only thing they really have to carry [their belongings] with them all the time … So people, combined with mental health issues, are always paranoid about their stuff being stolen. And then whenever they misplace something, they almost always blame somebody else.”

Colville said that these “lifestyle problems” make it difficult for unhoused people to transition once they acquire an apartment of their own. In contrast, he believes that tent cities can combat this issue by fostering a valuable network of support.

“We believe that when you do tent city in a supportive way, and you give people their own piece of land, and independent living, that they will, they will take care of the property and they will take care of themselves much better,” Colville said.

Colville said that the problem with not legalizing tent cities is that people can still be arrested and evicted on a whim. Meanwhile, Colville found it concerning that homeless people who live in tent cities do not have access to running water and are not allowed to make fires, which would help them stay warm during the winter.

Since June of 2022, Colville and those who live in his backyard have been cooking breakfast and bringing it to the tent city every Tuesday, encouraging them to join U-ACT and speak up.

According to the Greater New Haven Regional Alliance to End Homelessness, there were 1,922 evictions in the New Haven area in 2021.