In the brutal cold Tuesday evening, Dan Hartnett discovered that Mr. Jones, the can collector, was gone from his usual spot near the doorway of the High School in the Community. Draped over the fence behind a Water Street overpass he found a pair of snow-crusted blue jeans and two small duffel bags with shaving razors. In one doorway in Wooster Square he found a sleeping bag, a heater, and a slop bucket, frozen over brown.
As most New Haveners huddle inside at the peak of Winter Storm Janus, Hartnett, like a human tracker, found all those signs, but no homeless people attached to them, as he began his evening shift as a downtown and Wooster Square beat cop.
That was the best sign of all.
As temperatures and snow dropped, Hartnett, a 15-year veteran of the force, aimed his cruiser #311 to the usual spots officers know homeless people hang out in the downtown-Wooster Square district.
Every patrol officer citywide had instructions Tuesday night to be on the lookout for homeless people, said Lt. Jeff Hoffman, commander of the patrol division. In each district one or two officers were specifically assigned to homeless patrol. The police performed a similar citywide sweep earlier this month during the last frigid storm. (Read about that here.)
As of 9 p.m. Hoffman reported: “We found two [homeless people], and both declined to go to shelter and were transported to residences of friends or relatives.” He also reported 24 storm-related motor-vehicle accidents as of 9 p.m.; eight involved minor injuries. A accident involving a public-works vehicle, at Shelton and Thompson, did not involve injuries. Meanwhile, the government’s LIvable City Initiative helped people without heat, including at homes on Sheldon Terrace and Bouchet Lane.
As Hartnett drove his Crown Victoria cruiser along the icy streets, he made his first stop in the passageway behind 350 George St. He took out his L.E.D. flashlight and aimed it at Dumpsters, a homeless hangout.
The beam found bags of clothing but no people. An AT&T employee smoking on the loading deck suggested he look at the alcove in front of the building where she’d noticed a mattress. Here too, items of clothing, and a cup, but no mattress and no people.
Hartnett was asked about city policy concerning people who don’t wish to be escorted inside in a sub-freezing storm.
“If they’re trespassing, we’ll find a place where they’re welcome,” he said as he drove on through heavy snowfalls down Union Avenue, then Water Street, then stopped at the St. Paul and St. James Church at Olive. “If they appear fine or say they’re on their way [to shelter], I take his word for it. I can’t grab these guys off the street; if they’re OK, I’ll let them be.”
He checked behind Conte/West Hills School and St. Michael’s Church—a brilliant expanse of picture-perfect snow without footprints all the way to Dumpsters or nearby garages.
“If they’re intoxicated or have a jacket like this [thin], if they’re a danger to themselves, then I need to take them to the hospital,” Hartnett added
“When in doubt, the simple fact that someone would choose to stay outside in this kind of severe weather overnight, that’s a danger to themselves. That grants leeway to police to take them to hospital for psychological evaluation,” Hoffman later added.
At the 235 St. John St. basement apartment entryway (pictured), Hartnett spotted an encampment a homeless person might return to later. They know, he suggested, when the police come by. He said he’d returned because neighbors have reported a homeless person lives there.
“Sad thing about this I’ll have to arrest him for trespass ‘because he’s been to told leave.’”
Over on Grand Avenue across from Adriana’s restaurant, Hartnett pulled onto the large empty lot and shined his alley light, an officer’s best friend on such a stormy evening, across the bare bushes. They were beautiful and stark. The location, including a long now snow-filled sofa, is used for prostitution in the warmer weather.
Homeless people leave their bags in the brush at the back end of the lot before they go into the nearby shelter on Grand, Hartnett explained. That’s so stuff won’t be stolen and can be retrieved later.
Here too no signs of human beings.
Over on State Street at Audubon, Hartnett checked the Dumpsters at Jet Cleaners and the field of snow running down toward the Amtrak rail bed. He saw marks in the snow so, he checked on foot. Here too no human habitation.
On William Street, the same situation: He peered down an icy and dangerous declivity (pictured) toward the tracks where under a blue beam a thin blanket was draped in a kind of a lean-to fashion.
“If I had footprints I’d go down there,” he said.
This summer there was an encampment there. The men were turned over to the Amtrak police, since the area is outside New Haven’s jurisdiction, said Hartnett.
Next he maneuvered the cruiser slowly by the Dunkin’ Donuts at Center and Church. He paused and looked in. The 24-hour franchise was brightly lit and packed. “It’s a mix of guys who are plowing and homeless. I’ll go back later and peek in and make sure they’re all right. If it’s OK, then all right. We’ll get the bed for someone else who really needs it,” he said.
With uneventful peeks along Orange and Court, by Dumpsters, and up ladders that lead to roofs where homeless people and kids in the past have made mischief in the warmer months, Hartnett saw the area was mostly deserted.
“Maybe the message is out there,” he said.
Around 6:30 he shifted his attention to people gravitating to the Starbucks and other places near High and Chapel, where there’s foot traffic.
“Maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t find anyone,” Hartnett said. “Hopefully they’re all in places that are warm.”