Courtesy of Sam Taylor

For Eric Pullen, a resident of the West River Tent City who has diagnosed PTSD, a shelter is not a comfortable or viable option. 

Until recently, he was living in a tent city with roughly a dozen other residents off of Ella T. Grasso Boulevard. A March 10 removal order that cited city health code violations forced most of the unhoused people, including Pullen, to leave on March 15. As the sun rose the next day, police bulldozed the site and forcibly removed three remaining residents of the tent city. Officers of the New Haven Police Department arrested Mark Colville, a local housing activist, for criminal trespassing at the site on March 16. 

The tent city had stood off of Ella T. Grasso Boulevard for three years. Opponents of the move have questioned why the removal was necessary after the tent city had peacefully existed for more than three years. The tent city has at times been a home to more than 40 unhoused New Haveners.

“There comes the point when, when law no longer matters. Then one has to use one’s body to simply dramatize the fact that the law is being broken by the state,” Colville said.

Colville said that he has “appealed to the law” and claimed the city violated human rights laws including the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In response to criticism from housing advocates and mayoral candidates about the removal, city officials insisted that they have constantly worked with people living in the tent city to relocate them and provide them a bed to sleep in before the removal order. 

Tensions high between tent city and officials before eviction. 

Victor, the tent city’s de facto “mayor” whose last name has been withheld to protect his privacy, said he organized food distribution and held meetings to unify the community in his two years living there. Despite the tent city’s dwindling numbers this winter, Victor said he was grateful for the many “good people” that came through the community.

“I usually try to keep everyone united and make sure that everyone does their part to clean up,” he said. “Hopefully, I pray to God, I will be out of here soon.”

The tent city survived an inspection in early March after the city notified people staying there that residents could not have open burn pits and were required to clean up trash and dismantle any permanent structure. 

However, when the fire inspector and other city officials returned after the inspection, they found new evidence of burn pits, trash and construction of a permanent shower. 

On March 10, the city of New Haven provided a notice to the residents that they had a week to vacate. Protesters against the order gathered at the site on March 15. The removal notice said that residents must leave by March 15 at 1 p.m. As police did not arrive at the camp at 1 p.m., activists moved to the City Hall by 2 p.m.

Mark Colville, a resident of the neighborhood, told the News that the New Haven officials refused to provide him with the time when the camp would be destroyed. 

Colville said he felt obliged to support its residents, many of whom he knew personally.  He framed the eviction of the camp in terms of human rights. He said the city was violating the right to housing of those individuals, as well as the rights to privacy and autonomy, by requiring them to “institutionalize themselves.”

Billy Bromage — an advocate for unhoused people who works at the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health — also told the News about the need for the city to designate a place where people could stay and run it by themselves as long as they are following the law. 

During the protest at City Hall, Bromage stated that unhoused people needed a place to stay beyond shelters and pointed to the lack of available housing in the city.

“Instead of always telling them ‘you have to shut down fire,’ [the city] could say ‘we can help you figure out how to make a fire’ or have facilities for people,” Bromage said. 

Tenant organizer Francesca Maviglia said that instead of evicting camp residents due to “safety reasons,” the city should have focused on improving the living conditions and eliminating safety hazards for tenants. 

Mayor Elicker told the News that his administration worked with residents to ensure that they had a place to stay. Five residents have relocated to another tent city, two have moved to a shelter, one returned to live with their mother in Florida and another has moved with their tent to another part of the city. 

Pullen, a camp resident, told the News he was treated unfairly by the city. 

“I am not comfortable living in those environments,” Pullen said of shelters. “A lot of people would rather be in shelters, but … it’s not a fix for everyone.” 

He added that he believes there should be a designated place with drinking water and charging stations where “people can get back on their feet.” Pullen said he did not wait to be evicted by the police and packed his tent and belongings to move to another unspecified location.

Colville’s arrest

On March 16, dozens of officers gathered early in the morning and forcibly removed the three remaining individuals, also arresting Colville who had pitched a tent at the site to protest. 

Coville has been charged by State’s Attorney John P. Doyle with criminal trespass in the first degree which is a class A misdemeanor charge carrying up to one year in prison and a maximum fine of $2,000. His first court date was on March 24. 

Advocates for Colville gathered outside of the New Haven courthouse to protest the arrest and removal.  

In his court appearance, Coville declared his intent to represent himself with standby counsel and urged Doyle and the city to not drop the charge. Elicker told the News that he believes that the State’s Attorney should not pursue charges against Colville. 

Colville explained that he wishes for the charges to not be dropped to force city officials to testify in public about the city’s housing crisis.

“Since I was subjected to the indignity of arrest, I really would appreciate the opportunity to answer the charges in court,” Colville said in the courtroom. “Discussing [the eviction] in court would be very good for my neighborhood. … the city should be made to justify their actions.”

Currently, 30,000 families are on a waiting list for affordable housing in New Haven.

Yash Roy covered City Hall and State Politics for the News. He also served as a Production & Design editor, and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion chair for the News. Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, he is a '25 in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs.
Nati Tesfaye is a sophomore in Branford College from East Haven, Connecticut. He covers business, workers and unions in the city of New Haven. Last year, he covered housing and homelessness for the News.
Yurii Stasiuk is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered City Hall as a beat reporter. Originally from Kalush, Ukraine, he is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College majoring in History and Political Science.