New Haven’s unhoused population endures a winter with decreased shelter capacity
As waitlists for shelter beds grow, people experiencing homelessness turn to warming centers and tent cities as alternative means of surviving the cold.
Nati Tesfaye, Contributing Photographer
Amid an uptick in homelessness and a decrease in shelter capacity, more New Haveners are facing winter conditions without stable shelter.
Following the closure of the Immanuel Baptist Shelter on Grand Avenue, New Haven has significantly fewer shelter beds this winter than before the COVID-19 pandemic. With 285 beds in pre-pandemic years, the city’s 175 shelter beds currently available are in high demand. According to Kelly Fitzgerald, senior director of financial stability for United Way of Greater New Haven, there are currently 64 individuals and 51 families on shelter waitlists in the Greater New Haven area.
To compensate for the reduction of shelter capacity, the city has increasingly turned to warming centers, or spaces where people can take temporary overnight refuge from the cold. There are currently five warming centers across the Greater New Haven area, including one operated by Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen on State Street, which opened last November.
“This is just a place for people to go and be in a warm environment that keeps them from not freezing to death,” said Steve Werlin, executive director of DESK. “It is a very poor substitute for having an actual shelter and actual bed to sleep in. But this is where we as a city currently are in terms of the state of the need and our resources to address it.”
According to Werlin, DESK’s overnight warming center is a “lowest-barrier program,” meaning the center does not turn people away for substance use and allows unhoused people to come and go throughout the night. Werlin said that the center often serves those who struggle to follow the stricter rules of other warming centers and shelters — earning DESK’s warming center the moniker “The Wild West.”
Norman Clement, site specialist at DESK, told the News that the center has been operating at maximum capacity — 42 chairs — almost every night. In one of these chairs, Lynn, whose last name has been omitted to protect her privacy, had taken shelter from last Monday’s winter storm.
“It was stable, the place stays warm — as warm as I think it could be,” Lynn said. “There’s a lot of people here, and they manage. They manage to get from dusk to dawn.”
Brad Corson was also at DESK last Tuesday, eating dinner and taking refuge from the cold. Corson has been staying at different warming centers around New Haven throughout the winter; before the centers opened in November, he was living on the streets. He has been on a waitlist for a shelter bed since December.
When assessing the city’s response to homelessness in New Haven, Werlin emphasized that people experiencing homelessness have a range of different needs.
“I’m a big believer in flexibility. I think there needs to be lots of options for all sorts of different situations,” Werlin said.
He also pointed out that the curfews and substance use rules shelters put in place make them inaccessible to some, adding that “there are some people who frankly, cannot get through the night without using, and that doesn’t mean that we should condemn them to death.”
Tent cities provide one alternative for people experiencing homelessness who cannot secure a shelter bed or otherwise choose not to live in a shelter. Robert Long currently sleeps in a tent in the backyard of Amistad Catholic Worker House on Rosette Street. Long has stayed at shelters across New Haven, and while he appreciates the services he received at the shelters, he expressed frustration at the stringent rules.
“They give us dinner, supplies and they give us a shelter, but the way the rules are set up, it’s in the form of a halfway house,” Long said. “They’re giving grown folks regulations and curfews.”
Suki, whose last name has been omitted to protect her privacy, began living in the tent city at Ella T. Grasso Boulevard with her husband in July. During the summer, Suki said, there were around 40 residents — now, during the winter months, numbers have dwindled to around 16.
Last Friday, city officials visited the tent city on the Boulevard for an inspection. In a notice from the Community Services Administration, posted to residents a week before the inspection, the city ordered residents to clear trash, take down a newly-built shower and remove heating appliances and grills.
After receiving the notice, Suki said she gathered a team of friends and volunteers to pick up trash for up to seven hours a day to prepare the tent city for inspection.
“Every couple of months or so the city comes in and kind of hassles us a little bit and tells us we got to do this or that, and if it’s not done they’re gonna bulldoze everything we own,” Suki told the News. “We just want the right to live like everybody else. Everybody’s here for a different reason, and has trouble getting housing. We just need somewhere legally to be.”
Organizers with New Haven’s Unhoused Activist Community Team have pushed city officials to legalize tent cities and provide infrastructure such as running water, bathrooms, electricity and heating to residents. Mayor Justin Elicker has stated multiple times that the city will not promise to end evictions from tent cities.
New Haven Community Services Administrator Mehul Dalal MED ’09 said that the city is looking to expand shelter capacity using non-congregate shelters, which provide more privacy and individual space for unhoused people. Last year, the city tried to purchase Long Wharf’s 112-room Village Suites hotel to convert it into non-congregate shelter space; the plan ultimately fell through.
On Tuesday night, the Board of Alders approved a plan to allocate a $4.8 million federal grant to address homelessness. The plan included an amendment introduced by alder Alex Guzhnay ’24 to allocate $1 million toward the establishment of non-congregate shelters.
Guzhnay said he was inspired to propose the amendment after hearing testimony from unhoused people and non-profit providers during a previous hearing about funding allocations.
“Non-congregate shelters provide a lot more privacy,” Guzhnay told the News. “Non-congregate shelters help provide generally more safe and supportive environments for everyone.”
He added that unhoused people had raised concerns about the lack of privacy in warming centers.
Guzhnay’s amendment also establishes an advisory committee to guide the implementation of the federal grant. The committee will be composed of alders, members of the city’s Community Service Administration, representatives from the Greater New Haven Regional Alliance on Homelessness and U-ACT.
Dalal said that while the market “hasn’t been favorable” to purchasing hotels, the city is still looking for other facilities that could provide increased shelter capacity. However, there are no specific updates at this time.
“In an ideal scenario, you would actually have expanded shelter capacity by next winter,” Dalal said. “But in case we don’t, I think we have to plan for increased capacity for warming centers.”
DESK’s overnight warming center is located at 266 State St.