Natasha Khazzam, Contributing Photographer

On Dec. 1, New Haven announced the opening of its newest winter warming center, located at the former Strong Elementary School at 130 Orchard St. The center will be open from Dec. 1 to April 15, providing immediate relief to the city’s unhoused population during the winter months.

“We want to bring people inside, but ultimately our goal is to work with people throughout the winter to get them into permanent housing,” said Margaret LeFever, a representative for United Way of Greater New Haven. “Cold weather resources like warming centers are critical to ensure that no one dies outside, which we have already seen across the state this winter.”

The warming center was opened in collaboration between the city’s housing department and United Way, a social services organization based in New Haven. The center will be open every night on a walk-in basis and will provide unhoused individuals with a place to sleep along with blankets, food and beverages. Hours of operation extend from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., with extended hours to be implemented in the case of extreme weather.

According to Velma George, the city’s Coordinator for the Homeless, warming centers provide additional support to ensure that people remain safe and warm throughout the winter. The centers are meant to supplement New Haven’s seven permanent shelters — which will soon include an additional eighth shelter at a location formerly owned by the Days Inn.

Unlike permanent shelters, warming centers do not typically operate year-round. The Orchard Street location is one of three warming centers operating in New Haven this season, with the others located at 438 East St. and 242 Dixwell Ave.

The new center will be run by Upon This Rock Ministries, a Christian organization located at 884 Grand Ave. Pastor Valerie Washington explained that the ministry had previously served as a warming center for unhoused people at its Grand Avenue location. The new warming center will help the organization provide shelter to more individuals throughout the winter. The prior location had a capacity of approximately 25-30 individuals. 

“I believe that God has blessed us and opened the door to enlarge the space to bring more people in,” Washington said.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker noted that in recent years, winter warming centers have remained open throughout the entire summer due to an uptick in the challenges faced by individuals experiencing homelessness. With vacancy rates at a low, the state of Connecticut is currently experiencing a housing shortage, making it increasingly difficult for unhoused individuals to gain access to affordable housing. 

LeFever estimated that roughly 270 individuals will be sheltered outside in the Greater New Haven region this winter. She added that the five warming centers throughout the Greater New Haven area will have space for approximately 175 individuals in total.

The Orchard Street warming center will serve both individuals and adult couples. George added that the city is currently in the process of opening a family triage center at 209 Terminal Ln. According to George, the triage center will be opening within the next few weeks and — unlike other warming centers — will serve families.

Elicker added that the warming centers are also an opportunity for the city to engage with service providers in order to support unhoused people and connect them with resources to find more permanent housing opportunities. He also noted the presence of eight daytime navigation hubs throughout the city, where service providers will work to meet the needs of unsheltered and unstably housed individuals. These centers provide various resources including meals, showers, healthcare and housing navigation services.

In addition to expanding access to emergency housing, Elicker said that the city has engaged in various other efforts to expand long-term housing resources including building more affordable housing units within the city.

“Ultimately, this challenge isn’t going to be resolved if we don’t expand access to affordable housing; have more housing, period,” he said.

Prior to opening as a warming center, the space was used as a storage facility for the New Haven Public Schools Board of Education.

Natasha Khazzam covers housing and homelessness for city desk. She previously covered climate and the environment. Originally from Great Neck, New York, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in history and English.