Downtown, Homeless People Counted

Thomas Breen photosLate Tuesday night outside the bus stop at Temple Street and Chapel Street, a man with a thick, matted beard and a blue hoodie beneath his winter coat walked to the edge of the sidewalk to give an old friend a hug.

The man with the beard, who said that he was a former professional boxer who has struggled with alcohol abuse and with his mental health, has been chronically homeless in New Haven for over five years.

The friend he saw on Tuesday night was Stephanie DeMusis, a case manager in outreach and engagement at Columbus House who used to work with the man before he left her care and fell out of touch.

“Where have you been?” DeMusis asked as she returned the hug. “We haven’t seen you in so long.” DeMusis told him that she would be back downtown later in the week, and that they should put together a plan to get him re-engaged with the Columbus House and back on track to find stable housing.

That was just one interaction that took place between a member of New Haven’s homeless population and volunteer surveyors on Tuesday night during the state’s annual Point-In-Time (PIT) count of Connecticut’s sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations.

DeMusis was one of almost 100 volunteers to sign up to travel throughout New Haven from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., helping to identify how many individuals and families were spending the night out on the street or at the city’s warming center or homeless shelters.

The PIT count is an annual requirement for cities and states throughout the country that are interested in receiving federal dollars to help fund social service programs for the homeless. Tuesday night’s PIT count in New Haven proved to be just as much about connecting with, listening to, and demonstrating care for the city’s most vulnerable population as it was about filling out a survey and adding up some numbers.

Volunteers started gathering at 5:30 on Tuesday night at the First Presbyterian Church on Whitney Avenue in East Rock to learn about their PIT count assignments.

They checked in with city homelessness coordinator Velma George or Marrakech Inc. case worker Lossie Gorham, picked up a big yellow pin that read “CT COUNTS Volunteer,” and grabbed a seat at one of the dozens of tables spread throughout the cavernous sanctuary.

“I did this in the rain last year,” said Rogsbert King, a Bridgeport native who works at the New Haven social service organization The Connection. “I was out there complaining about how my ears were cold and my face was wet and I was so miserable. And then I thought: if I can’t handle this for an hour, what must it be like for people who are out here all night?”

Lisbette De La Cruz, a senior manager of outreach and engagement at Columbus House, and Keyonna Naughty, a program director at The Connection, walked the volunteers through their responsibilities for the night.

Each volunteer was teamed up with a group of five or six people, and then given a packet of maps detailing which areas of the city they would need to cover.

De La Cruz and Naughty said that the purpose of the night was to identify the total number of individuals and families in the city who were experiencing homelessness. The PIT count happens every year early in the morning or late at night on a federally-specified day at the end of January. The count is designed to identify an area’s most vulnerable population: people who truly have nowhere else to stay other than the streets, a warming center, or a homeless shelter.

This was the first year that the state mandated that PIT volunteers use a smartphone app, instead of paper forms, to document their findings. The app, Counting Us, used a phone’s built-in GPS to identify exactly where in the city an interaction between a volunteer and a homeless person was taking place, and then provided a series of questions for the volunteer to ask the homeless person about his or her background and current health status.

The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness (CCEH) will then gather all of that electronic data and put out a final report later in the spring that will detail the PIT count’s findings.

Last year’s PIT count indicated that there were 543 homeless people in New Haven, which represented a 13 percent decrease from the year before.

Packed with several plastic bags of blankets, gloves, hats, and socks, two groups of primarily Columbus House employees headed Downtown to begin their assignment.

Just before closing time at the main branch of the public library, city parks director and PIT count volunteer Becky Bombero interviewed a man who was sitting at one of the table’s behind the information desk.

Another ten or 11 people sat scattered throughout the ground floor of the library. Several identified as homeless. Several said that they had secure places to spend the night. Few wanted to talk with the volunteers.

The group had much more success out on the Green. DeMusis interviewed a bearded man in a blue parka and faded white sneakers on a bench outside of Trinity Church Meanwhile, Columbus House case worker Annette Bentine and Columbus House chief programs officer Hebe Kudisch talked with passerby near the bus stop and counted those who bore the telltale signs of homelessness: extra layers and worn out shoes, sleepy faces and heavy plastic bags of belongings.

Bentine and Kudisch split up from the group to cover the area immediately west of the Green. They found nothing but quiet streets and college students on Elm Street and High Street.

Down on Chapel Street outside of the Union League Café, a tall man with torn pants and checkered leggings played a mountain dulcimer with a broken fourth string. He said that he had a safe place to spend the night, but also asked about where he could find the warming center.

“I’m just trying to do the best I can with a broken string,” he said as he strummed what he described as “peppy medleys” of Appalachian folk music.

Back in their car and driving down Crown Street, Bentine and Kudisch found a man in his mid-30s with a wiry frame and baggy clothing. He held a bent cardboard sign with a plea for money in his right hand.

He told Bentine that he had been homeless in New Haven since November, which was when he last got out of jail. He said that he was currently on methadone, and expressed interest in coming by the Columbus House later in the week to connect with a case manager.

“I’ve spent more than half my life in jail,” he said, a toothpick held between his lips. “And because of that, it’s tough to function in society.”

Back at First Presbyterian Church, Bentine and Kudisch dropped off their packets and reconnected with the volunteer coordinators. The two had identified nine homeless people over the course of the night, several of whom they had recognized from their day jobs at the Columbus House.

The PIT count over, Bentine and Kudisch wished each other good night, knowing full well that the following morning would bring another full day of working with New Haven’s homeless population on finding stable housing, employment, addiction treatment, and a sympathetic ear.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 24, 2018  8:30am

The PIT count is an annual requirement for cities and states throughout the country that are interested in receiving federal dollars to help fund social service programs for the homeless.

Do like New York.

Why New York Hires 200 People to Pretend They’re Homeless

One night a year, Javon Egyptt and Darryn Lubonski stage a performance on a New York City sidewalk. Dressed in layers, hats and extra socks, the couple pretends to be homeless.

They will join about 200 other decoys who will be paid to act as if they live on the street during the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, the city’s annual census of unsheltered homeless people, as a way gauging the count’s accuracy.

Like many of the decoys, Ms. Egyptt and Mr. Lubonski have experienced homelessness, living in subway stations or parks, abandoned homes or on the streets.“When New York City had a blizzard up to here,” Ms. Egyptt said, placing her hand at her stomach, “I was on the street.”The city enlists thousands of volunteers for the four-hour, overnight canvass, an undertaking that would cost far more without the unpaid search parties. The decoys shoulder the responsibility of testing the accuracy of a survey carried out by volunteers who are sometimes too timid to approach homeless people or are too inattentive to spot them.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/nyregion/new-york-city-hope-homeless-count-decoys.html

posted by: Smitty on January 24, 2018  8:49am

THREEFIFTHS Are you telling me you don’t believe that there are homeless people? Do you live and work in New Haven? 

It is sad tho that this is only done annually and is only done because it is Required….

posted by: LookOut on January 24, 2018  9:13am

I thought Malloy told us that he had solved homelessness in CT (I write with heavy sarcasm)?

Definitely a problem but this is like placing a bucket under a drip from your ceiling….its fine at dealing with the symptoms but please don’t forget to look at the causes.  Go up to the roof and find the leaks.

CT and New Haven are structured with so much ‘have’ and ‘have not’ issues, much of it from failed government policy, that we have a very difficult cycle to break.  But, there is opportunity.  With the improvement in the economy, increases in personal spending money, increases in jobs and other gains at the macro level, we should think hard about how we can make these gains available to all - not just the well connected.

posted by: 1644 on January 24, 2018  11:18am

Lookout:  A large number of the homeless seem to be so because they suffer from substance addition and other mental illness.  Absent a return to the days of forced institutionalization, I don’t know of a solution.  I think of Wendy’s futile effort to save MC, whose addiction meant that thoughts of beer and cigarettes crowded out all else.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 24, 2018  12:05pm

posted by: Smitty on January 24, 2018 8:49am

THREEFIFTHS Are you telling me you don’t believe that there are homeless people? Do you live and work in New Haven?

Did you read what I wrote.The city enlists thousands of volunteers for the four-hour, overnight canvass, an undertaking that would cost far more without the unpaid search parties. The decoys shoulder the responsibility of testing the accuracy of a survey carried out by volunteers who are sometimes too timid to approach homeless people or are too inattentive to spot them.

posted by: William Kurtz on January 24, 2018  12:12pm

LookOut,

I asked a couple of friends with professional ties to housing and homelessness about Connecticut ‘ending homelessness’ when it was announced. My understanding of what it means is that there’s money, personnel, and space to move every chronically homeless person into housing. It will still take some time to get any individual into long-term housing and of course, not everyone will take advantage of it. So I agree, it sounds like a cynical and misleading claim but the people that I know who know said that it is actually a significant progressive step and a pretty big deal.

posted by: Hmmm... on January 24, 2018  1:22pm

Tagging on to Mr. Kurtz’ response I would add that there are several folks coming to town everyday BECAUSE New Haven offers so many services. If you took the time to talk to some of the folks living on the streets they will tell you they came from the burbs (and even other states) because they heard about how much help they can get here.

posted by: Smitty on January 24, 2018  2:24pm

THREFIFTHS….Where do they advertise for this Job? Thousands of people get paid to pose as homeless.  I’d like to apply for the job next year….Then expose it….How do you know about this and not expose them?  Commenting in an article isn’t enough….

YES I read what you wrote….I need you to back it up with proof or send me where I need to go to find out that they are actually hiring people to do this…

BUT my question remains UNANSWERED….Regardless of how many people they hire to pretend….

Do you actually believe there isn’t an equal amount of REAL homeless people living under bridges on sides of train tracts and near nooks and crannies???

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 24, 2018  3:52pm

posted by: Smitty on January 24, 2018 2:24pm

THREFIFTHS….Where do they advertise for this Job? Thousands of people get paid to pose as homeless.  I’d like to apply for the job next year….Then expose it….How do you know about this and not expose them?  Commenting in an article isn’t enough….

YES I read what you wrote….I need you to back it up with proof or send me where I need to go to find out that they are actually hiring people to do this…
You apply here.

http://www1.nyc.gov/site/dhs/outreach/hope.page

This is why they use decoys.To gauge the accuracy of the annual count of homeless people on the streets, New York City commissions a “shadow count” of decoys.You need to read the article.The decoy program is known as the “shadow count,” and the people who brave the cold year after year say they do it not for the pay of $85, but as a civic duty.Decoys underwent training last week at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, which administers the shadow count under a $133,000 contract with the city.

BUT my question remains UNANSWERED….Regardless of how many people they hire to pretend….

Do you actually believe there isn’t an equal amount of REAL homeless people living under bridges on sides of train tracts and near nooks and crannies???

Yes I do.