Natasha Khazzam, Contributing Photographer

Community leaders knocked down boundaries at an inaugural “wall-breaking” ceremony on Tuesday morning at a press conference celebrating Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen’s, or DESK’s, plans to expand and renovate its 266 State St. location. 

Alyse Sabina, the president of DESK’s board of directors, said that these developments will allow DESK to “move beyond the traditional soup kitchen model and provide comprehensive homelessness services for our community.”

DESK, a nonprofit organization that provides services to New Haven’s unhoused and food-insecure community, opened its State Street location as a low-barrier drop-in and resource center in 2021. Renovation plans will expand the organization’s capacity to provide relief services by allowing more room to accommodate clients and service providers as well as constructing a new kitchen and clinical facility. The construction will begin next week and is scheduled to be completed in July 2024.

According to Steve Werlin, DESK’s executive director, the new construction will expand the building’s existing dining area and install a new servery along with an energy-efficient kitchen. Other additions to the building will include shower facilities, a computer station, consultation spaces for outreach workers and a medical clinic staffed with providers from the Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center.

In addition to providing clients with immediate relief resources, Werlin shared that the center’s staff members will also connect people to additional resources like shelters and housing, medical care, mental health services, substance abuse treatment and mainstream services that can provide stability for personal finances. 

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker discussed the city’s support for the DESK initiative, explaining that groups like DESK have influenced other non-profit organizations to “think differently about how to provide services.” 

Werlin explained that DESK’s resource center encompasses a novel multifaceted approach to addressing homelessness by consolidating various services under a single roof.

Elicker also mentioned that the city has supported DESK in its efforts by contributing $150,000 to the construction project.

Other sources of funding for the construction have come from several public and private resources, including $1.4 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and additional contributions from organizations including the State of Connecticut, The Cornell Scott Hill Health Center, Connecticut Foodshare, Yale University and Yale New Haven Health Systems.

Funds raised for the construction amount to roughly $3.2 million. However, given that the total expense for the construction is expected to be roughly $3.9 million, DESK coordinators are still in the process of reaching out to other donors who might help cover the remaining cost.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro expressed her support for DESK’s commitment to promoting “health, community and equity” in New Haven. She also explained how DESK has adapted to providing services amid changing conditions within New Haven. She noted that the organization was initially formed in 1987 and has since expanded services through “progressive strategies and empathetic approaches,” including the addition of a program that serves dinner to unhoused people five nights a week as well as a weekly food pantry program.

After elaborating on plans for the upcoming construction and expressing their enthusiasm for the expansion, DESK representatives and elected officials took turns breaking down a wall on the first floor of the building with a hammer to inaugurate the construction project.

Werlin explained how the walls symbolically represent barriers to accessing life-saving basic needs and stigmatizing unhoused and food-insecure people.

“Here at DESK… we knock [walls] down, and we build bridges,” he said.

In addition to providing services at State Street, DESK distributes meals at other locations in downtown New Haven including 311 Temple St. and 57 Olive St.

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.