New Haven in many ways leads the state in the effort to move people out of homelessness.
But if the city is going to get closer to the federal goal of ending chronic homelessness among families and youth by 2020, it must create more supportive affordable housing even as it grapples with a small but growing group of young, resilient homeless people who refuse to be helped.
Service providers and department heads brought that message to City Hall Thursday during a three-hour public hearing of the Board of Alders Human Services Committee. The hearing was held to provide a status update on the city’s 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness.
Providers noted Thursday that they struggle to provide supportive permanent housing for hree subgroups of the city’s homeless population: middle-aged single men, couples, and women with children.
“We are really on the cutting edge here in New Haven and we always have been,” said Silvia Moscariello, program director for Liberty Community Services. “There is a new population here. ... It’s different tools we’re going to need if we’re looking at how to” address that group.
The annual point in time survey, which counts the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people on a single day of the year as directed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, showed New Haven’s homeless population dropped from 730 last year to 543 this year. But Moscariello echoed the testimony of many of those who spoke Thursday about a growing number of younger homeless people who are increasingly being found at homeless encampments around the city who refuse services including help finding stable housing.
Jim Pettinelli, executive director of Liberty Community Services, said these people represent a small percentage of the homeless population in the city and are typically battling a mental health problem, a substance abuse problem, or both. The biggest challenge to the “housing first” approach that the city’s providers have taken — get people sheltered, then help them deal with underlying problems — is simply the lack of new supportive housing in the city.
“When we look at supportive housing units—the ones that are currently created—once folks move into one of those units, using that housing first model and are provided with adequate support,” he said, “all of us will tell you that there is a 90 to 95 percent success rate. It works. It’s a proven practice.”
New Haven has seen a boom in high-end housing development— and it has a waiting list of 10,000 families seeking low-income, public housing assistance. Housing authority Executive Director Karen DuBois-Walton said that the 10,000 wait-listed families represent where the list has been capped. It doesn’t represent how many people are truly in need public housing but can’t be added until more people come off that list. There’s just no point in adding more people to the list once it reached five figures, she said.
DuBois-Walton said the city has been able to expand permanent supportive housing (with on-site social services) by setting aside 167 units for families moving from homelessness, which puts it close to the 10-year plan goal of 175 units. The Housing Authority of New Haven also has created 370 housing opportunities through the use of its project-based and tenant-based voucher programs. But creating more housing through new construction has been impossible because of the continued underfunding of public housing, she said.
“The federal government is not funding any more public housing,” DuBois-Walton said. “So our goal is to redevelop what we have and bring back the quality of the units, but we have no funds to expand beyond our currently funded numbers.
“The federal government is not adequately funding what we currently have let alone providing additional resources,” she added. “There are no new public housing units in the queue. What we have the ability to do is tear down and replace.”
With the current stock of public housing at 97 percent occupancy, when a family does come off the wait list, it likely has been on that list for five years or more, she said. People come off the list on a first-come, first-served basis. They can move up a little more quickly if they come through programs that prioritize the homeless, the elderly and the disabled.
Columbus House Executive Director Alison Cunningham said a homeless person doesn’t have to “graduate into housing” in New Haven.
“They can go straight to the Green into housing,” she said. “We can get them housed straight off the street. That’s the best way to help people and then start to address all the other things. You can’t really address issues when they’re worried about where they’re going to stay at night.”
Encampments On The Rise
You also can’t address problems of mental illness and substance abuse if a homeless person refuses to leave the street. City officials told the alder committee Thursday night that a growing and resilient group of homeless men and women ages 23 to 35 refuse services.
The city’s Homeless Outreach Task Force, which involves service providers and several city departments, have encountered 18 homeless encampments since April. They’re usually made up of 50-60 people, who will turn up at another encampment in town when the city comes to dismantle one, said city Homelessness Services Coordinator Velma George. (Read here about one along the Mill River beneath I-91 that has riled neighbors.)
“We have a team to go in and engage with them and see what services we can connect them to and encourage them into housing and other services they need,” she said. “As we dismantle one campsite, they move to another. And we run into individuals not necessarily interested in housing. It’s a really difficult plight that we’ve run into in the last couple of months.”
Lt. Mark O’Neil, police district manager for Downtown/Wooster Square, said that often times the homeless campers won’t go to a shelter because they don’t accept couples, they don’t want to obey the shelter’s rules about when they must be in or out of a facility, or they’re concerned about having their things stolen. He said many of the campers are living together for security.
Parks chief Becky Bomebero said that her department has devoted more than 150 staff hours to multi-agency cleanup efforts and have carted off more than 28 tons of trash. There’s likely even more trash to clean up because some of it is deeply embedded in the woods and difficult to reach.
One thing New Haven is not proactively doing: preserving the city’s stock of single-room occupancy units, said Ed Mattison, director of South Central peer services for Continuum of Care.
Continuum of Care works with middle-aged men coming from shelters, treatment programs, jail and the street, paying for the first few months of their rent at sober houses throughout the city. The men eventually takeover their rent responsibilities through disability benefits, or by working jobs that the sober houses help them get.
“In the sober houses, people live one to two people to a room,” he said. “Remarkably enough people will stay there not just for the three months that we oversee them but for essentially forever.”
Mattison said at one of the sober houses that Continuum of Care works with, the average length of stay is nine years.
“So single-occupancy housing is something they want,” he said. “There is a national movement to encourage and maintain single-occupancy housing done the right way and New Haven is not doing this.”
He pointed to Chicago, which at its height had some 40,000 single-occupancy spaces. But when developers hot to transform SROs into high-end housing showed up, owners of single-occupancy housing, particularly in downtown where such housing traditionally was, cashed in. He said Chicago got down to 20,000 such units but is now trying to rebuild that capacity. It now stands at about 27,000 single-occupancy units.
He said New Haven’s single-occupancy stock began to lose ground when then-Mayor Richard Lee began tearing hundreds of rooming houses down in the 1950s and ‘60s to make way for urban renewal and also practically outlawed them from most parts of the city. (Read here about a recently announced plan to transform the Duncan Hotel, the last SRO housing in downtown New Haven, into an upscale hotel.)
The preservation of SRO housing is something that needs to happen if the city wants to combat homelessness, particularly among men, Mattison said.
“Chicago has a whole series of ordinances to protect their single room occupancy,” said Mattison, a former alder who also serves as the chairman of the City Plan Commission. “They make it difficult to turn a unit over to market rate and stuff like that. They also have an organization, a public-private partnership, which provides services to landlords, tenants, and the community so that if somebody is having trouble they have social services staff that works with them to keep them in housing or find them a higher level of care.”
He said New Haven should move in the same direction but it has to combat the prejudice against such housing and have the means to ensure that they are run properly with a robust city inspection process, services for tenants and help for landlords in getting financing.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “We should get people interested because it is how we will fill this void. The other thing that is wonderful about these is that there is no government money in them. They support themselves.
“We have to do stuff like this,” he added. “[President] Trump is not going to send bushels of money to us, and the state isn’t either. To encourage housing that is self-supporting makes great sense.”
New Haven also needs to develop more affordable supportive housing, said Columbus House’s Cunningham. She said the city needs to work with developers on qualifying for tax credits from the state for building mixed-use developments that include housing for those moving out of homelessness.
Cunningham said that market rate rent for a one-bedroom apartment in New Haven is $1,100. That’s just too much for someone who receives social security/disability income that is usually less than $800 a month.
“I think the city can learn more about that and talk to developers so that they can integrate some more mixed housing in the city that our folks can live in,” she said.
Clarence Phillips Jr. was one of only two members of the public who stuck around for the entire three hours of the committee’s meeting to testify Thursday night. He also was the only one who is homeless, but not chronically so. He’s bunking with a friend.
He reminded the committee that not every person in the city experiencing homelessness is battling substance abuse or a mental illness. Some people simply don’t have a place of their own where they can go if they don’t want to live in a shelter or brave the elements in an encampment.
“There’s nothing like having your own place,” he said. “A sense of privacy. To go in the fridge and not have someone eat your chicken or drink your Kool-Aid. Think about that as you consider these things.”
The committee agreed to bring city officials and service providers back in November to further workshop the city’s homelessness plan and to also hear about its plan for sheltering people this winter. And what the city is facing doesn’t look good, Cunningham said.
She said as of Wednesday night, Columbus House had more women than it had beds, partly because of the closure of New Reach’s shelter for families. Instead of going to that shelter, the woman and their families have come to Columbus House, where single women often shelter. The bigger problem is that Columbus House is full in September when the weather is still good. What will happen now that the heat wave, which broke Thursday night, is over?
Cunningham said that the last time she looked at the waitlist for shelter beds, it had 200 men. The city’s overflow shelter has only 75 beds. There are 43 women and 52 families on the waitlist too.
“I don’t think this group would advocate for more shelters,” she said. “We just don’t want to build any more shelters. We want to get people housed. We want to divert people from homelessness. We want to prevent people from becoming homeless.
“We have some really hard work to do this winter,” she added.