As midnight approached and her fellow cop Becky Fowler grabbed coffee inside Dunkin Donuts, Elizabeth Chomka listened out on the Church Street sidewalk to a man named Gregory talk about love.
“Love,” Gregory reflected. “It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world, but it can really hurt you.”
“You’re the wisest man I know, Gregory,” Chomka replied.
Fowler joined them, fresh coffee in hand. Then she and Chomka, two Yale University patrol cops, embarked on their own mission of love. Love, and community policing.
Chomka and Fowler set out to distribute plastic bags with deodorant, flush wipes, water, socks, Slim Jims, and granola bars to the homeless people they’ve gotten to know while on their beat.
They’ve been making these rounds monthly when the weather’s warm enough for people to sleep outside. In the process, they’ve developed bonds with many of downtown’s homeless people—and worked with them to solve problems.
Gregory, who was homeless for four years on the streets of New Haven before he found housing, used to receive the plastic bags from Chomka and Fowler. Now, even though Greg no longer takes plastic bags from them, he still comes by Dunkin Donuts often at the same time they do and offers to buy them coffee.
“These women are really inspiring,” Greg said. “I was out here for four years, and they’ve done such a great thing. They really come out here and support us, provide us a lot of comfort, get us coffee and chat with us. They give us a lot of emotional support.”
One recent night, Fowler and Chomka started out at 11:30 at Church and Center streets, where they gave out bags to people inside and in front of Dunkin Donuts, some old friends and some new acquaintances. They moved on to the bus stops down the street on Church Street and near the Green, before driving to other spots they’ve become familiar with over the years of finding and helping homeless people.
“Thank you, thank you a million times,” said one man outside Dunkin Donuts who received one of the 15 plastic bags in total handed out that night.
The supplies for the plastic bags, which Fowler and Chomka pay for themselves, usually cost about $100 each run. They distribute them about seven to eight times a year.
Beyond the plastic bags, they buy and distribute food: coffee, Subway sandwiches, Insomnia cookies (a “huge hit,” according to Fowler). They also distribute clothing, such as socks and handwarmers in cooler weather.
During their rounds, street people continually approached the two officers and greeted them on a first-name basis. Over the past two years, they estimated they have interacted with almost 100 homeless people on the beat; they see about 30 regularly.
“Lots of people move on, but there are always new people, and we’re always looking to gain their trust,” Chomka said.
Fowler and Chomka have walked an overnight downtown beat together for the past four and a half years. They found themselves often dealing with homeless people violating trespassing laws, urinating on property, sparking complaints from neighbors.
Instead of arresting them, the duo decided to start talking to them about where they could and couldn’t stay, asking them about what they needed, and giving them supplies. The donations evolved into the plastic bags, food, and clothing they now hand out regularly.
“A lot of people are really shocked when they see cops in uniforms asking them what’s wrong and trying to help them instead of arresting them,” Fowler said. “We try to build trust, and our reputation gets out.”
After spending her first three years as a police dispatcher, Fowler became a cop three and a half years ago. Originally from Iowa, she moved to New Haven when she was 12 and worked a number of jobs before joining the Yale force , from security at the Hospital of St. Raphael to bartending. Chomka, who hails from Clinton, is the daughter of a Yale cop and the granddaughter of a New Haven cop. She joined Fowler on her beat three years after Fowler started.
“We want to help them instead of arresting them all the time,” Chomka said of the homeless. “They just want food, and lots of them are looking for jobs.”
The homeless people they’ve helped have returned the favor.
“One time, a large fight broke out at a bar here downtown. It was huge, but all the guys showed up there immediately making sure we were safe and that no one was going to hurt us,” Fowler recounted. Whenever there are incidents, some of their homeless friends inevitably show up to check on them.
“They protect us, and we watch them,” Greg said. He said he has seen the pair’s work help decrease crime in the area where homeless people tend to hang out.
Fowler and Chomka explained that they don’t rely on the homeless as confidential informants. But they do help steer them to spots needing attention. Chomka recalled one time that a homeless woman they often help came up to them to tell them she saw a Yale student being harassed down the street. She was pretty sure the student was about to be mugged; sure enough, Chomka and Fowler found a student and stopped the harasser before anything happened.
When Fowler and Chomka report to crime scenes, their reputation sometimes precedes them: People will recognize them and be more willing talk to them and give them information.
“They know everything that happens in the city, and they have their own little network,” Fowler said. “It’s amazing to me.”
At the bus stop right by the Dunkin Donuts, William Fuller helped deliver one of the plastic bags to another homeless man down the street before coming back to spend time with Fowler and Chomka.
He said he spends every day at the Yale Medical School library, where he uses their computers to apply for jobs. He said he has done that for the last year and a half. He spends his nights on a school porch on Union Avenue, but has to pack up each morning before the students arrive for class.
Fuller used to live with family in New Haven and still gets coffee with his sister every morning downtown. He said he left home because he could tell he was “wearing out his welcome,” even though they didn’t say anything.
“I spent 14 years in prison for stealing cars and stupid stuff. But when you grow older you realize that you don’t live forever and that you want something out of life, you don’t want to go to prison anymore,” he said. “I realized I didn’t want to go back. I got there in 1995 and got out in 2009. I’ve had no contact with police since 1995.”
“Except positive contact,” Fowler added with a laugh. Fuller received a plastic bag with supplies from Fowler and Chomka and met Fowler while she was on her daily Dunkin Donuts run.
In a bus shelter down the block were two other men, Ben and Nick. Nick, who just found housing at Safe Haven after being homeless for two and a half years, met Fowler and Chomka for the first time on last week’s run.
Nick is deaf. He and Fowler ran through the alphabet in sign language together. Fowler had a deaf friend when she was younger and learned some sign language.
“You know how to say, ‘I love you’ in sign language?” Nick asked Fowler. She did.
After Nick found housing, he went to visit his daughter and two granddaughters in Rhode Island to celebrate. “They love me to pieces but I never force myself on them,” he said.
As Fowler and Chomka prepared to move onto the next bus stop to continue handing out bags, they wished the men good night and said they didn’t want to encroach upon their space.
“You never interrupt us anyway,” said Ben with a smile.
Next stop: a bus shelter at Elm and Temple. Unlike at the lively and chattering group at the bus stops on Church, this bus stop had three people covered in blankets, sleeping as the cops arrived at around midnight.
One woman awoke as Fowler and Chomka dropped off plastic bags. As she raised her head from underneath her scarf, it became clear she was a frail-looking elderly woman. The officers were in and out in less than a minute.
“You find all kinds of people in these shelters. People sometimes don’t think about it, but many of them are the elderly,” Fowler observed.
Though homeless shelters are an option for some of these people, Fowler explained that when the weather is nice and when they can stay outside, many of them prefer to. The shelters are often overcrowded. People sometimes get things stolen from them while they are asleep. While shelters try their best, there is inevitably some petty crime. Living conditions are also “not really ideal,” she said.
Shelters are also first-come, first-serve. One of the homeless men by Dunkin Donuts complained that he has often been turned away by shelters that are already full to capacity by the time he arrives.
As the cops drove around, they discussed with specificity the usual spots they pass. They know the locations of some of the regulars they visit, like the Tyco lot on Broadway, or under a specific tree, or behind the FBI building at State and Grove.
At one of their last stops, outside the state courthouse at Church and Wall streets, two people slept under blankets. It was a quarter past midnight.
Fowler and Chomka didn’t recognize them. They quickly tiptoed over. Without saying a word, they dropped off two plastic bags, the turned around to leave.
One man jerked awake. He pulled the blanket back over his face after Chomka explained quickly that she was giving him a bag of supplies.
The officers then returned to their cruiser and drove away to drop off the rest of their bags. Once again, they were in and out in less than a minute.
“We never wake anyone up if they’re sleeping. We try not to bother anyone,” Fowler said. “We’re just here to help.”
When Fowler and Chomka give out supplies and clothing, they don’t try to decide who is deserving of them. They don’t ask questions about prison history or whether recipients are looking for a job. They merely ask recipients their first names and whether they need some help.
“We learn that some of them can help themselves more, but we don’t judge. We don’t want to feel like we’re interrogating them,” Chomka said. “We just want to have a mutually respectful relationship.”
Fowler explained that some of the shelters require people to carry out tasks and chores to stay in them, and that some homeless people may not be in the mental state to handle those tasks. She said her work has taught her to think more about the connection between homelessness and mental health problems.
The homeless people they encounter come from different backgrounds. One homeless man to whom they refer as Mr. Watts is a Yale graduate in his 60s. “He’s a genius that’s so smart, too smart to function in society,” Fowler put it. Others give up their apartments just so they can try to put money in the bank and save up to move somewhere else for better opportunities.
Fowler recalled encountering one man who had a construction job during the day. He would spend his nights behind 53 Wall St. (between Temple and Church) because he could get access to wireless Internet there. After his construction job, he would spend his nights on his computer trying to look for other jobs to get ahead. They encountered another man on the rounds last week who runs a hot dog stand during the day and sleeps on the streets at night.
“These guys here, we try to help each other out whenever we can. I try to give them a coffee or some food if I ever have any extra,” the man told the officers. “But this homeless thing … We really have to fix it. People have to talk about it. We have to come up with a solution. I’m starving here on the streets looking through garbage just for something to eat.”
The two cops emphasized that they never want to violate people’s trust or invade their space. They’ve often gotten unfriendly reactions to trying to hand out supplies, but they continue to carry out their work.
“There’s no easy solution to homelessness,” Chomka said, “but we’re doing what we can.”
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
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• Paul Bicki
• Paul Bicki (2)
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• Scott Branfuhr
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• Carlos Conceicao (2)
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• Michael Haines & Brendan Borer (2)
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