City Hustles To Keep Homeless From Freezing

Melissa Bailey PhotoPaul Bass PhotoInstead of scrounging for spots in coffee shops to stay warm amid the coldest wave in decades, James Campbell and his buddies at the Columbus House Overflow Shelter got a rare chance to stay inside for the entire day.

Lives are at stake.

Friday was an official “stay-in” day at the 88-bed shelter at 232 Cedar St. As temperatures dipped below 15 degrees in the wake of Winter Storm Hercules, the shelter became one of several official “warming centers” that stayed open during the day.

Columbus House, the not-for-profit that runs the overflow shelter with the help of city grant money, joined a citywide effort to make sure that the homeless didn’t freeze to death. All of New Haven’s homeless shelters are staying open during the day Friday and Saturday instead of kicking people out, according to Rick Fontana, the city’s deputy emergency management chief. In addition, police and city officials canvassed the streets Thursday night in search of homeless people. Because the shelters were at capacity, police took 20 homeless people Thursday night to Yale-New Haven Hospital’s emergency room, where the homeless received warm drinks and food. They were allowed to stay inside overnight without checking into the hospital, Fontana said.

The train station, some public library branches, both hospital emergency rooms, and all homeless shelters will remain open through Saturday night to make sure people stay warm, according to Fontana. (Scroll to the bottom of this story for library hours.)

For the homeless, going inside may be a matter of life or death.

“This is dangerous,” said Alison Cunningham, director of Columbus House. “We’re very well aware that people have absolutely no place to go. People would be stuck outside. There’s a real danger in this.”

Friday night could bear the coldest temperatures New Haven has seen in 20 years, down to as low as negative 15 degrees, according to Fontana. The low temperatures “could cause catastrophic injury and death.”

Anyone who needs a warm place to stay can call 211 for help finding shelter.

City government’s Livable City Initiative (LCI) responded to nine tenant complaints of insufficient heat, Fontana said. It relocated one person due to a malfunctioning furnace and dropped off a couple of space heaters to help others, he said. City housing code requires landlords to keep heat at 65 degrees or higher.

At the overflow shelter Friday, 30 men enjoyed a welcome respite from what one man described as a grueling routine. Usually, they wake up at 6 a.m. They have to leave by 7, and the doors don’t open again until 4 p.m.

“It’s a constant struggle to stay warm,” said James Campbell (pictured), who is spending his fourth winter at the shelter.

On Thursday, he said, he spent time shuttling between Liberty Safe Haven, the library and Starbucks, where he’s a regular customer.

“Every single day, you’re looking to get resources,” he said. “It’s a seven-day-a-week thing.”

During the academic semesters, Campbell, who’s 41, spends his days taking classes at Branford Hall and the University of New Haven. He said a lot of other guys aren’t as lucky. They cart their belongings downtown, and often get kicked out of coffee shops even if they purchase a drink.

Campbell said the past four years have opened his eyes to the daily challenges the homeless face. He grew up in Hamden. His mom worked in an office at Yale; his dad was a postal worker. He lived a middle-class life before a bout of depression and anxiety left him hospitalized. His wife divorced him. He found himself homeless.

“People think we’re a bunch of bums,” he said, but the day-to-day routine of homelessness is a lot of work. It’s work to just stay clean, find food, find warmth, and keep your clothes clean.

One of the hardest parts of living in the shelter, he said, is that there’s no break from that routine. You can never sleep in and relax—except on the rare day of extreme weather.

Campbell relished the time Friday to sleep in past 6 and spend time with his friends in the shelter.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie,” he said. A shelter staffer brought in his X-Box so that the guys could watch movies through Netflix.

Guys took turns picking movies. Campbell picked the Jet Li flick Fearless.

Nearby, Richard Zappone (pictured) picked up a mop.

“I’m bored. I need to burn some energy,” he said. The 46-year-old, who’s originally from Florida, said he worked in hotel management for 23 years before he “lost everything” due to a slot-machine addiction.

“Gambling got me,” he said.

Zappone said he made hundreds of thousands of dollars at casinos, but never paid taxes. The IRS caught up with him. His car got repossessed. His house got foreclosed. “I never thought in a million years I’d be in a homeless shelter,” he said.

He said he felt grateful for the shelter for staying open Friday in the cold. “People are very compassionate. They have comfortable beds. I can’t complain.”

Plans Hatched At EOC

Thomas MacMillan PhotoAs crews finished clearing seven inches of snow from city streets, the Harp administration turned its focus Friday morning to dealing with the lowest temperatures to hit New Haven in 20 years.

Meanwhile, the city decided that it can’t enforce a citywide odd-side parking ban in residential neighborhoods. The issue proved controversial in recent years’ snowstorms, when narrow side streets became inaccessible to city plows.

It could get as cold as 15 degrees below zero Friday night, announced deputy emergency management chief Fontana.

He made that announcement during a Friday morning briefing in the city’s Emergency Operations Center below 200 Orange St., where city department heads gathered to coordinate the response to the winter’s first major snowstorm.

The storm, dubbed Hercules, hit New Haven overnight with seven inches of snow, along with high winds and biting cold. The snow, which was less than expected, has largely passed, Fontana said Friday morning, but the cold has only just begun.

Fontana (at left in photo) said the temperature during the day Friday would be between five and 15 degrees. With 20-mile-per-hour winds, the wind chill could bring the temperature to between five degrees and five below, Fontana said.

Overnight Friday, the mercury will plunge even lower, he said. “Over the next 24 hours,” Fontana said. New Haven will experience its “lowest temperatures in the past 20 years.”

In order to make sure people are safe in the cold weather, Mayor Toni Harp Thursday night directed the police department to pick up anyone found outside overnight and either drive them to their home or take them to a hospital or emergency shelter. Those efforts will continue Friday night.

Police Chief Dean Esserman said all city cops worked overnight to help bring people in from the cold.

Fontana said Yale-New Haven Hospital took in people, gave them food, social-worker consultations, and a warm place to sit or lie down.

“I think we truly averted some catastrophic incidents,” Fontana said.

Fontana said public libraries, the train station, and all public buildings will be open Friday as “warming centers.”

Even-Side Parking “Encouraged”

A downtown parking ban was lifted at 6 a.m. on Friday. Another parking ban will take effect downtown between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. Parking on all posted snow routes remains prohibited. Parkers can leave their cars in the Temple Street lot for free overnight Friday.Click here and here for details.

Overnight into Friday morning, the city technically had a ban on parking on the odd side of the street in residential neighborhoods; the city did not enforce the ban. They have officially lifted it now. The city continues to “encourage” people in residential neighborhoods to park on the even side of streets to make plowing easier. Jennifer Pugh, the acting chief administrative officer, said the city is not enforcing this request, although neighbors have phoned in to say they wish it would.

In 2011, repeated snow storms left city crews unable to clear some narrow side streets in neighborhoods like East Rock, producing an uproar from neighbors.

In the wake of those storms, the DeStefano administration concluded, along with some of the vocal neighbors, that the city needs to declare a ban on parking on one side of those streets—before the snow starts. And then the city needs to tow cars aggressively, and promptly. Otherwise it will never be able to dig out.

“We learned the public will appreciate [aggressive towing] as long as we’re [clear] and follow through,” Mayor John DeStefano said at the time. “We’re going to be more aggressive about towing. People are pretty accepting and really cooperating.”

Read about the events and the subsequent debate at the time here and here.

Traffic tsar Jim Travers said Friday morning that an odd-side parking ban can’t be enforced because of a “capacity issue.” The city can’t coordinate a citywide towing effort, he said.

Doug Arndt, head of public works, said his department needs to be able to respond to plowing needs all across the city. If people are towed off of one particular street, plow trucks need to be there immediately to plow it, so that people’s cars aren’t towed for no reason. That “locks us into a small area during a city-wide response,” Arndt said.

No Trees Down, No Power Outages

Other highlights from Friday’s briefing:

The city saw 13 car accidents overnight.

Public works has 35 plow trucks on the road, said Doug Arndt, head of the department. He said trash pick-up is proceeding as scheduled.

Arndt cautioned that salting the roads to de-ice them has a limited effect in the temperatures hitting the city.

Christy Hass, deputy parks director, said her department is helping out with plowing. The interior of the city parks will not be plowed until everything else is clear. The parks are open for cross-country skiing, she said.

Hass said there have been no reports of downed trees. “Knock on wood.”

United Illuminating said New Haven has no power outages.

Schools are closed Friday. They’re also closed on Monday, for Three Kings Day.

Erik Johnson, head of the Livable City Initiative, said the city received only two reports of people without heat.

Karen DuBois-Walton said the housing authority has had no heat or tree problems.

The airport reopened at 9 a.m.

Mayor Toni Harp (pictured) thanked everyone at Friday morning’s briefing, for preventing catastrophe. “This could have been a nightmare. It was not.”

Harp said later that she was “impressed with the system the city has in place.”

Warming Centers

The following locations are serving as “warming centers” for the general public:

• New Haven Free Public Library Main Building at 133 Elm St.
Open Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Open Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

• Fair Haven Branch Library at 182 Grand Ave.
Closed Friday
Open Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

• Mitchell Branch Library at 37 Harrison St.
Closed Friday
Open Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

• Stetson Branch Library at 200 Dixwell Ave. in the Dixwell Plaza
Closed Friday
Open Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

• Courtland Seymour Wilson Branch Library at 303 Washington Ave.
Closed Friday
Open Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

• New Haven Union Station at 50 Union Ave.
Open 24 hours

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posted by: Anderson Scooper on January 3, 2014  12:19pm

Re: even-odd side of the street parking for plowing.

1. Declare the ban.
2. Enforce it with ticketing. (Don’t bother with towing.)

Sooner or later people will get the message and start parking as they’re supposed to. In the meantime the City can use the ticket revenue, for things like the cost of this storm.

posted by: robn on January 3, 2014  1:45pm


Ditto. There was a robust debate about this last year and the new administration should have been better prepared.

posted by: Atticus Shrugged on January 3, 2014  2:18pm

Okay, let’s give credit where credit is due: the city did a great job clearing snow and helping people get out of the cold.  Obviously, Mayor Harp has her detractors, but she’s handled the first two full days of the job superbly and has shown her commitment to all residents of New Haven.

With regards to the parking ban, ticket at 6:00 a.m. when its minus 5 below with wind chill is relatively rough to do.  But its easy to say that it should be done.  Perhaps a better method is agreeing to tow on certain streets (e.g., Elm Street as opposed to Edgewood Avenue) due to their relative widths. 

Regardless, if a robust debate occurred after “Snowmagedon” and no answer arose - perhaps there is not a simple solution.  Just another thought on why resolutions don’t occur after debates.  With that in mind, Mayor Harp may not get a pass in months or (hopefully) years to come, but for the first storm - let’s be fair.

posted by: anonymous on January 3, 2014  3:38pm


The real problem with this storm will be when the snow - uncleared from bus stops and sidewalks - melts this weekend and then re-freezes as a 2” layer of solid ice. 

As happens every winter, families will be forced to push strollers down the center of Whalley Avenue for weeks.

If the city truly cared at all about low income residents, elderly, children, and people who walk, they would address this issue with the same attention that they currently give to clearing the roads for our city and suburban elites.  Unfortunately, all decisions are made through a windshield.

posted by: robn on January 3, 2014  5:25pm


An answer did arise. If you had read the entire article you might have seen this…

“In the wake of those storms, the DeStefano administration concluded, along with some of the vocal neighbors, that the city needs to declare a ban on parking on one side of those streets—before the snow starts. And then the city needs to tow cars aggressively, and promptly. Otherwise it will never be able to dig out.”

posted by: cunningham on January 3, 2014  6:39pm

@ anonymous

I don’t think that’s completely fair. It’s just as important for buses and shuttles that the roads get cleared for auto traffic, and that’s for the benefit of the lower-income people rather than suburban commuters. If anything, the “elites” can afford to take the day off and curl up by the fire. It’s the rest of us that have to haul out of the house and brave the roads. That said, walking will indeed likely be a treacherous affair in weeks to come.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 3, 2014  7:31pm

How about when I park right and the city stills plow my car in.

posted by: Ozzie on January 4, 2014  2:55pm

It’s great that the City wants to keep the homeless warm and find them shelter but on the other hand they obviously dont care about their Police officers . i saw two officer walking the beat friday night up Church St. in sub zero weather and I’m sure there were many more officers walking throughout the City that night, but thats Chief Esserman’s grand plan of Community based Policing which he hoped would lower violent crime in the City.
    Well guess what there were 17 homicides in 2012 and 20 in 2013 and the prognosis for the young man shot early New Years morning doesn’t look to good. Getting to know the officers in the area is great but if you have to wait hours for a police officer to show up thats plain crazy . People don’t want to call the department for a cop and be told sorry there’s now officers available to come to your house because there all on walking beats. Put the cops back in the cars were they belong at least when it is freezing out.

posted by: Nathan on January 4, 2014  7:31pm

This article is really two separate, but related stories with the headline reflecting only the first part.  A split with proper headlines is in order.

posted by: Common Ground on January 6, 2014  9:49am

I applaud Mayor Harp for making sure people get picked up and not left to freeze.  The whole operation seems to have run better than the big storm that started 2013 off.

posted by: wendy1 on January 7, 2014  12:21pm

Time to HOUSE the homeless not just SHELTER them intermittently.  According to this paper 36 homeless died last year.

If Camden NJ and North Philly can do it, we can.  The Fortune Society did it in NYC.