Leaking toilet? That just happened. Peeling air ducts? Painters are coming soon. Missing tiles? Repairs are underway.
Just don’t take any pictures. That would be bad for the clients.
Arnold Johnson offered those updates on the condition of the Emergency Shelter Management Services during a Monday afternoon tour of the Grand Avenue facility, where he is the director.
The tour followed a Monday morning press conference at City Hall, where advocates for the homeless lambasted the Grand Avenue shelter. Among them was Flor Jones, a 51-year-old who was kicked out of the shelter last Thursday, after he took pictures of missing bathroom tiles and fixtures, and peeling paint in the shelter.
Johnson, who has served as the director at the shelter since last July, said that Jones was kicked out for violating shelter policy, and that repairs are coming soon.
Johnson would not allow the Independent to take pictures or video inside the shelter’s bathrooms or dormitory. Johnson cited the privacy and anonymity of his clients as reasons forbidding photos; the areas were totally vacant at the time because the shelter had not yet opened for the eventing. Click the video above to see his explanation.
Johnson confirmed that Jones was indeed kicked out of the shelter last week in part for taking photos. “That is a violation of privacy,” Johnson said. He claimed that Jones’ picture-taking was making other people uncomfortable. “We don’t know what he took” pictures of.
Johnson said Jones had stayed over 90 days, was not complying with his case manager, and had been given several extensions.
As for the problems that Jones photographed, the shelter is making repairs, Johnson said. “Some things don’t happen over night.”
Tomás Reyes, the mayor’s chief of staff, toured the building Monday. Afterwards, he said he saw no reason to close it down.
“The allegations that were made by some of the activists, in my view, ware not accurate. There is some work that needs to be done. I’m satisfied Mr. Johnson is working on it. It’s not a new building.” Reyes said he saw no exposed insulation. He also said the toilets and showers were working.
Reyes said he would try Monday afternoon to find a bed somewhere in town for Jones. For now, Reyes said, the 90-day rule remains in force, a condition under the shelter’s contract with the city. That rule is under reconsideration as part of negotiations over extending the shelter’s contract with the city at the end of the month.
Meanwhile, United Way’s Amy Casavina Hall said that while it’s important to keep shelters safe and sanitary, that’s not ultimately where people should be focusing their energy if they want to end homelessness.
The Grand Avenue shelter is in its 25th year. It has 75 dormitory beds for homeless men. Men can stay for free, or pay $4 a day to claim a bed and store one bag inside.
Men are allowed to stay for up to 90 days, and required to sign up for case-management services by 30 days. They may qualify for up to three two-week extensions if they are making progress toward employment or housing.
When men arrive, their bags are searched and they are given a towel. After they shower, they return the used towel to get clean sheets for one of the 75 beds.
Johnson (pictured above) walked through the dimly lit dormitory Monday, where beds are laid out in a close grid. Each bed had a pillow, many of them discolored, and a heavily used blanket.
Johnson said the sheets on the beds are new everyday and the orange blankets are washed “often.”
Johnson pointed out two TVs, one large one and a smaller one used mostly to watch Spanish-language programs.
Asked about temperature control, which Jones had complained about, Johnson said the shelter turns the shelter’s air conditioning system on early every day to cool the dormitory before the men arrive in the afternoon. One day, Johnson said, staff forgot to turn it on. He said the air conditioning and fans are sufficient to cool the building.
Johnson entered the bathrooms. He pointed to two discolored mirrors and said they’re due for replacement; he’s just waiting for the right adhesive.
A toilet was leaking water onto the floor. Johnson said it was a brand new commode that someone seemed to have put a hole in. It will be fixed, he said. He said he suspects the toilet may have been sabotaged.
Johnson pointed out freshly laid tiles on the floor, and fans drying the grout.
He pointed out the bathroom’s five shower stalls, including one with new fixtures. The showers have no curtains, so that people can’t hide behind them for illicit activity, like drug use, Johnson said.
One lamp, suspended above the showers and caked with dust and dirt, had only one florescent tube bulb in its four slots. “They’re going to replace the bulbs,” Johnson said. “The one bulb is actually really bright.”
Throughout the bathroom and dormitory, paint was peeling in sheets off of air ducts. “It’s going to be painted,” Johnson said. “Probably this week.”
“A Little Disgusting”
Men milling outside the shelter, waiting to be let in, offered mixed reviews of conditions inside.
“The toilets are constantly overflowing,” said one. “It’s like a river almost.”
“Everything could be better,” said another, who described himself as a poet, just two weeks out of prison. “The a.c. is off. The bathroom is all fucked up. ... Everything is just fine, it just looks a little disgusting. This isn’t a place you want to call your home, anyways.”
“There’s mold everywhere,” said Kosmo Davis (pictured above), a recent transplant from San Diego. “I’ve been in a lot of missions. This is one of the worst.”
“It’s like an old garage or tire shop,” said a man.
Another man questioned whether the homeless have any right to expect anything better. “How can we complain?”
“There’s no question that shelters should be safe and meet standards,” said Casavina Hall, United Way’s vice president of income and health initiatives. “That’s not the debate. The question is how do we invest our resource on the real problem, which is that people are homeless.”
If people want to really end homelessness, and not simply manage it, resources should go toward putting people in homes, Casavina Hall said. “That’s where we should put our focus and keep our focus.”
Unfortunately, the system that has been created over the last 30 years, does not have housing as its focus, she said. “Now many people are working together to change that.”
The city is in the middle of an ambitious 100-day campaign to house the majority of the city’s chronically homeless, part of a nationwide 100,000 Homes campaign. The initiative aims to change the way the city’s social services agencies address the problem of homelessness, focusing on housing first.
A previous version of this story follows:
City Promises Action On Shelter
Four days after he was kicked out of a Fair Haven homeless shelter, Flor Jones came to City Hall and secured three promises from a top city official.
Jones (pictured), who’s 51 and has been homeless for over seven years, entered City Hall Monday morning with about 10 supporters. He first registered a complaint about conditions at the Grand Avenue Shelter, which kicked him out after he took pictures of missing bathroom tiles and fixtures, peeling paint, and mold.
Emergency Shelter Management Services, which runs the shelter, did not return a call for comment by press time.
Jones Thursday night knocked on the door of Mayor Toni Harp’s home to complain. (She wasn’t there.) Monday morning he met at City Hall with Tomás Reyes, the mayor’s chief of staff. After hearing Jones’ report about the shelter, Reyes promised to take a look himself, to set up a meeting between the Jones and the shelter’s director, and to try to get Jones back into the shelter.
Monday’s events stemmed from an incident last Thursday, the night that Jones was kicked out of the shelter. Jones had taken pictures showing a variety of problems. He said the shelter management immediately sent him packing and told him he was banned for life from the shelter.
Jones called some homelessness activists from the Amistad Catholic Worker house in the Hill, who have been working on the issue of shelters. Jones ended up visiting the mayor’s house that night to try to talk about what had happened to him.
On Monday, the activists called a press conference on the steps of City Hall, to push the issue further.
It was the latest in a number of recent confrontation between members of the Amistad Catholic Worker group and the city administration. Two of the main activists, Gregory WIlliams and Mark Colville, were arrested in May after setting up a camp for the homeless on a vacant city lot.
With people in the city sleeping on the streets, and the shelters not able to meet the need, “City Hall still has a question before them,” Colville said on Monday. “Where, then, shall we go? Housing is a human right.”
Williams (pictured), a Yale divinity school student, announced the group’s demands: Legalize sleeping outside, restore all shelter beds, improve the city’s housing policies to provide homes for more people.
Williams said the activists will be taking over another vacant lot on July 24, if no progress is made before then.
After addressing the press, the group filed into the office of the Livable CIty Initiative, New Haven’s anti-blight agency.
“I’d like to file a formal complaint,” Jones said.
A receptionist, who declined to give her name, took down Jones’ report about conditions at the Grand Avenue Shelter: uncleanliness, mold, mildew, bedbugs, broken tiles, exposed insulation.
“I’m going to give this to a supervisor,” she promised.
The group moved to the Community Services Administration offices, where Reyes, the mayor’s chief of staff, was called down.
“I’m going to talk to three people,” he said. Reyes (at left in photo) took Williams, Colville, and Jones into a conference room, and asked Jones to explain the situation.
“The big ask,” Williams said after Reyes was briefed, is “can we get a bed for this gentleman?”
“I’m concerned about the things you’re telling me,” Reyes said. “We’re the funder” for the shelter. “This is critical.”
Reyes promised to visit the shelter to see conditions for himself, arrange a meeting between Jones and the shelter director, and try to get a bed for Jones.
Reyes assured Jones, Williams, and Colville that Jones would face no retaliation from the shelter or the city for speaking out.
“Direct action gets the goods!” Williams said triumphantly, back outside City Hall.
Jones was more circumspect. “We’ll see how it goes.”
“Now I have to find another $28,” he said, to pay the $4-per-night shelter fee for a week.