Amid Storm, Hartnett Hunts For Freezing Souls

Allan Appel PhotoIn 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.

Thomas MacMillan PhotoWith 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.”

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posted by: CreatingUrgency on January 22, 2014  10:18am

So glad they know the areas. New Haven needs more safe homeless housing. All of the boarded up houses should be confiscated from the banks and be used to provide shelter for the most vulnerable.

This could be a great project for kids who are good with their hands. It would provide apprenticeships and a sense of community.

posted by: Paul Wessel on January 22, 2014  11:42am

I had no idea the police did this. Amazing. True community policing.

posted by: robn on January 22, 2014  2:15pm

Officer Hartnett,

If you haven’t done so already, please take a peek over the concrete wall in the small dog area of the Union Street Dog Park. There’s a big encampment there.

posted by: Trustme on January 22, 2014  3:46pm

Hartnett is a phenomenal police officer with a great heart.

posted by: OhHum on January 22, 2014  4:27pm

“All of the boarded up houses should be confiscated from the banks and be used to provide shelter for the most vulnerable.”

And then we should go to rich peoples homes and make them give us money to help the needy. Perhaps we should take cars from people that have more than one and turn them into homeless condo’s. “Take, take. take”, from people and institutions that “have”. Is this the only idea that you could come up with? I have a better one. Get up from in front of your T.V. or radio and do some community organizing that will end drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty, hunger, mental illness, etc. Just stop with the “take”, from those who have. If it was that easy all of the preceding things would have ended years ago, because governments and people have been taking and taking and taking and taking…. It doesn’t work. Giving or taking without the substantive movement toward positive change just continues the inertia already existing.

posted by: Charl on January 22, 2014  5:11pm

While I agree with your premise, I believe your reasoning is faulted.

There is a very clear distinction between “taking from those who have”
and “taking from the banks and banksters.”

Please read up on what money really is, how banks “lend” money, and how interest can never mathematically be paid back en toto.

A great start on the evils of banking, money lending at exorbitant rates (aka usury), and the wickedness of the banksters would be:
G. Edward Griffin
written in 1994.

It is good to see New Haven showing compassion for the homeless.  There are way too many homeless in our city, and they have been neglected for too long.

Whatever the answer to the problem of homelessness, the city should be ashamed for turning a blind eye and not addressing it.

Toni Harp, I hereby challenge you.

posted by: OhHum on January 22, 2014  6:39pm

Banks enter into contracts with people and other institutions. They charge a fee (usually in the form of interest). Banks do this to make money. If the person or institution that asks for the loan doesn’t like the rate the bank is charging they go to other venues to find money. If they can’t find other venues they either agree to the banks rate or don’t. When the U.S. gov’t sets a Prime Rate of (X) the bank borrows the money from the gov’t at that rate and lends it at an increased rate. Usually a couple of points higher. It does this to make money. It’s a business. If it borrows at 2 and lends at 10, nobody borrows from that bank and it will quickly go out of business in time because other banks are lending at much lower rates. the usury you speak of is usually done by organizations that play on the margins of society or by Credit card companies. Institutions and individuals that use them are foolish. Purchasing on credit at exorbitant rates (15%,20%, or more) is usury by definition, but irresponsible in reality. At those rates there is a simple rule. If you can’t afford it don’t buy it. However, one always has the option of bankruptcy to bail themselves out. After all if you end up with nothing due to your own irresponsible acts there’s the Government that will care for you. They always look out for what’s best for us, whether we want them to or not. By the way the only way the Gov’t can do that is by taking from others in a big way.