Late 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.