The Countdown

in Features

There’s a ritual every Sunday afternoon on the New Haven Green. For the past nine years, rain or shine, volunteers have set up a small altar behind Trinity Church on the Green, complete with an altar cloth, communion chalice, and Bible. They unfold a dozen wooden chairs. A self-appointed drummer sits down, flips over a plastic container, begins playing a beat, and a congregation of homeless people arrives for the Chapel on the Green.

On a cold afternoon at the end of September, the oldest participants fill the rows of chairs, while the rest stand in a semicircle around the altar, bags of their possessions at their feet. One man lies down on the grass, hand on his stomach, looking up at the trees. The rector welcomes the crowd and begins reading a Bible passage, raising her voice over the sound of city buses rumbling down Chapel Street. The crowd listens quietly.

When the service ends, the crowd lines up for the most vital part: a free Sunday lunch.

When the service ends, the crowd lines up for the most vital part of the event: a free Sunday lunch. Each week, a different local church sponsors the Chapel on the Green, providing their rector for the service and over 150 bagged lunches containing sandwiches and snacks. The line, nearly one hundred people long, consists almost entirely of young or middle-aged black men. Some leave immediately after receiving food, while others congregate in small groups across the Green to eat.

One of the attendees is Harold Fox, who has lived on the New Haven Green since the beginning of July. He sleeps on a bench, sitting upright, his backpack at his feet and worn suitcase by his side. When it rains, he sleeps under the awning of a bus stand on Chapel Street. But he never really sleeps. Even in the dead of night, the Green is alive with activity, and he dozes for an hour or two at most.

Nine weeks ago, Fox, an affable 47-year-old New Haven native with short hair and a thin beard, had an apartment and a steady job. Monday through Friday, he worked sixteen-hour shifts at the Yale-New Haven Hospital sterilizing surgical instruments, a job he had held for nine years. But when he got into an argument with his supervisor, he was fired. At first, he held onto his apartment, though making rent soon became difficult. Then, he became convinced that someone was snooping around his home at night. Fearing for his safety, he gathered his remaining possessions and left.

Fox is now one of the roughly one hundred unsheltered homeless people who spend their nights in New Haven’s streets, parks, and abandoned buildings. That population seems to have surged in the city recently, casting a shadow over the progress that state and federal governments say they have made in the past two years. Since Fox only just lost his home, he is considered “transitionally homeless,” and thus is not the priority of federal and statewide efforts, which focus on housing the “chronically homeless,” people with disabilities who have been homeless for over a year.

Jason Martinez manages the Coordinated Access Network (CAN), a federally mandated shared database of homeless people, for United Way of Greater New Haven, a social service provider. He said the New Haven area has been housing the chronically homeless with unprecedented efficiency. “Last year, it took two and a half years to house the chronically homeless,” he said. “Now, it takes one hundred days.”

Before the CAN, homeless people had to inquire at each shelter for an available bed. Now, they can call 2-1-1 and be entered into the system, which allows local service providers to connect them with available resources, case managers, and a place to sleep. The CAN helps reduce favoritism at shelters, and prioritizes support for the chronically homeless, whom the federal government deems the most vulnerable.

The state of Connecticut has been a national leader of homeless reduction initiatives. In January 2015, Connecticut joined Zero: 2016, a national campaign that is trying to meet the goals of the Obama Administration to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015 and chronic homelessness by the end of 2016. Zero: 2016 includes over four hundred member organizations responsible for coordinating homeless services in city, county, metropolitan, or statewide areas. And to track its own progress, Zero: 2016 requires that each branch conduct an annual “Point-In-Time Count” (PIT), a laborious data-gathering method that requires sending volunteers into streets and shelters to count the number of homeless people they find on a single night.

In May, when the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness (CCEH) released its PIT data, the statewide results were encouraging. Across Connecticut, homelessness had dropped 13 percent since 2007. Chronic homelessness had dropped 20 percent in only a year, on track with the targets of Zero: 2016. And last year, to much fanfare, the state declared the elimination of veteran homelessness; there is now a system in place to ensure that homeless veterans, once identified by service providers, secure housing within ninety days.

In New Haven, however, even as service providers pool their resources to fight homelessness, there is little agreement about the most basic fact: whether homelessness is rising or falling in the city. The New Haven PIT reported 625 homeless people, including 138 children. That number was lower than it has been in the past, but it was a 10 percent increase since 2015. The rate of chronic homeless showed no significant decrease within the past year. And most worrisome of all, there was a 52 percent increase in the city’s unsheltered homeless population from last year alone.

In New Haven, however, even as service providers pool their resources to fight homelessness, there is little agreement about the most basic fact: whether homelessness is rising or falling in the city.

Yet despite the concerning data, service providers in New Haven are optimistic that they can eliminate chronic homelessness in the city by the end of this year—and eventually, homelessness altogether.

“I definitely think it’s possible to end homelessness,” said John Bradley, the Executive Director of Liberty Community Services, a New Haven-based homeless service provider. “We’re not talking about ending poverty, we’re not talking about getting everyone educated. We’re just talking about five hundred people sleeping on the street. It can be done.” As Bradley explained, eliminating chronic homelessness will make more resources available to the transitionally homeless, which would enable New Haven to eliminate homelessness entirely.

But the current emphasis on ending chronic homelessness means that transitionally homeless people like Harold are at risk of falling through the cracks. Since Fox has only been homeless for nine weeks, he is not even represented by the PIT. And because he has not yet entered a shelter or worked with a case manager, he is not part of the CAN. He lives on the Green in a limbo between the home he had not long ago and the shelter that, due to fears of bedbugs and a sense of principled independence, he hopes to avoid for as long as possible. He remains optimistic that soon he will find a job and an apartment. But the strain of the past few months shows in his weary, drooping eyes and the ragged edge of his voice.

Fox spends his days walking to soup kitchens across New Haven for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and attends the Chapel on the Green on Sundays. He has a slow, lurching gait, a combination of the weight of his luggage and a limp he acquired after being hit by a car years ago. In the morning, he goes to the Powerhouse Gym in North Haven so that he can exercise and shower. (He has enough money to keep his membership until the end of the year.) And each night, he returns to a bench on the Green to sleep under the glow of a streetlamp.

“Eventually I’ll get myself out of here,” he says. “I just want a nice little room. It’s the first time I’ve really been homeless, so I don’t know all the resources yet.”

For federal and local governments, ending homelessness is as much a financial concern as it is a humanitarian one. The longer someone is homeless, the more they cycle through expensive public systems like hospitals, jails, and emergency services. According to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness (CCEH), eliminating homelessness could save up to 70 percent of the cost of those public resources.

But in their fight to end homelessness, service providers in New Haven and across the country face formidable challenges. Limited employment opportunities, stagnant wages, the opioid crisis, and the rising cost of living continue to push people into homelessness or prevent them from returning to permanent housing. Since the causes of homelessness are complex and pervasive, victories are ephemeral.

The homeless are a transient population. People move from place to place, arrive and leave shelters, and try to hold onto permanent housing. As a result, tracking rates of homelessness over time can be almost impossible, even with systems like the PIT. Community leaders who volunteer in the PIT are quick to note its flaws. But the confusion sits deeper. Many city officials and homeless service providers say there is no clear consensus about whether homelessness is on the rise in New Haven, or if the disturbing data is caused by random variation.

Martha Okafor, the Community Services Administrator for New Haven—a branch of City Hall that oversees city community service providers—emphasized that the PIT count is inherently unreliable.

“It’s not a total count, because at that point in time, you count all the people you can reach. We don’t get to every place, and we only get the people we can see. We may not reach every person,” she said. Fox, for example, had a job and an apartment when this year’s PIT was conducted.

Lisa Tepper Bates, the Executive Director of the CCEH, said the weather of the count night could significantly influence the data. On bitterly cold nights, people may go to greater lengths to find shelter, resulting in a lower unsheltered population; last year’s PIT was conducted during a blizzard, she said. Warmer temperatures tend to correlate with higher unsheltered counts, as was the case this January.

Bradley said that the opening of a warming shelter at Bethel AME Church on Goffe Street this past winter might also have increased this year’s high unsheltered count, since people there were recorded as unsheltered who might not have even been counted before. Some, like Tepper Bates, argue that this year’s uptick may not be representative of a larger trend. Another provider said that even with the PIT and her organization’s own data, “we just don’t know.”

But Bradley said that the potential increase does concern him, and that his organization has recently seen higher demand. Sunrise Café, a free breakfast program Liberty Community Services runs out of a church in Wooster Square, has seen more participants between this summer and last winter. And for the first time ever, there are waitlists for its housing programs, though that is partly because calling 2-1-1 makes it easier for people to request access, Bradley explained.

Okafor, who manages the $1.1 million that the city allocates to homeless service providers in New Haven, was even more adamant. She explained that the data from the Homeless Management Information System, a federal system that centralizes data from local providers, indicates a homeless population in the city that far exceeds the PIT count.

“Oh yes, homelessness is on the rise,” she said.

Though faced with uncertainty and disagreement about the state of homelessness in the city, most service providers are cautiously optimistic that they can eliminate New Haven’s chronic homelessness by the end of this year. And there is a strong impetus to do so: as Tepper Bates argued, the chronically homeless are the people most likely to die if they are not housed.

But Okafor pointed out that the intense focus on housing the chronically homeless diverts attention away from the largest population, the transitionally homeless, who may have only recently lost their homes and now are struggling to get by.

“The conversation has centered on this very small population, and you lose sight of the larger population of people who are homeless, which is growing,” she said. “We’re not paying attention to them.”

Although Fox has both a mental and physical disability—schizoaffective disorder and a permanently damaged leg—he is not considered chronically homeless because he has not yet been homeless for a year. He is not a priority for the federal or the city government. As Fox grapples with the reality of his new life, he is striving to inform himself about the landscape of resources available to him.

Like most homeless people in New Haven, Fox has the schedule of free meals around the city memorized; they determine the course of his day. Depending on the day of the week, he gets breakfast at Sunrise Café, Amistad in the Hill neighborhood, St. Paul’s Chapel, or the Community Soup Kitchen on Broadway. He gets lunch there too, or at the Saint Ann Soup Kitchen. For dinner, he heads to the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen on Temple Street.

The current emphasis on ending chronic homelessness means that people like Harold are at risk of falling through the cracks.

Fox lives on $190 per month from food stamps, bumming cigarettes off other people on the Green and accepting the occasional dollar from passersby. He is petitioning for unemployment benefits, but if that does not work out, he plans to get a job at Hummel Brothers Inc., a meatpacking company in Long Wharf, which he has heard is always hiring.

But Fox is qualified for a much higher-skill job. In his thirties, living in a housing authority apartment in New Haven, he went back to school at Gateway Community College. He received two Associate in Science degrees in hotel and food service management, and a certificate in culinary arts. Now, though, his daily routine has become so much about survival that he has few long-term plans beyond vague hopes that he will find a good job and a place to live soon.

“I don’t hang out with people,” he says. “That’s how I got started with all this mess in the first place, trusting people,” he says. He says that he likes the Chapel on the Green for its sense of community, but he is largely on his own.

The rector looks up from the passage to address the crowd on the Green. “Jesus is saying to us, you may be lost sometimes, you may be the one that was taken from the fold, and it may not make any sense to you, but I see you, I will seek you out.” She opens her arms wide. “Those times when we don’t feel like we’re with the others, when others have left us behind, let us rejoice, for God is seeking us out.”

After the rector’s prayers, people move through the crowd, shaking each other’s hands and exchanging peace. An old man tapping a large stick: “Peace be with you.” A skinny young man wearing a backwards baseball cap, leaning against his bike: “Peace be with you.” A middle-aged woman with shivering hands: “Peace be with you.” Fox, wearing a white undershirt and cargo shorts, toting his suitcase: “Peace be with you.” Then, the rector performs the communion rites and circulates through the crowd, dipping a communion wafer in grape juice and placing it on each person’s tongue. The drummer begins playing a slow beat as the crowd sings a mumbled version of “Amazing Grace” and, with increasing rhythm, slides into “We Shall Overcome.”

Rowena Kemp, the Assistant Rector of Trinity On the Green, which organizes the program, has worked at the service since 2014. She says that the size of the group is smallest at the beginning of the month—when people receive SNAP benefits—and swells significantly by the end. Recently, she has noticed that the crowd has been younger and bigger.

Fox is sharing a bench with a young man who introduces himself as “Lieutenant Kendrick the Third.” He has glasses, cropped blonde hair and jittery knees. In one breath, he says that he grew up in Florida, is active in the U.S. army, and suffers from PTSD.

He then points to a gaunt, shirtless man with tattoos across his chest sitting on the asphalt next to the bench, whom he claims is his brother. “His name is Ghost.”

As they eat their lunch, the three men talk about the dangers of the Green. “People are getting shot, selling all kinds of drugs,” says Kendrick. “And the gangs mark their territory—”

“Yeah, that’s the loose cig guys,” says Fox, nodding. “You gotta stay safe.”

“I’ve seen more homeless out here than anywhere in Connecticut,” says Kendrick.

But in New Haven, he says, you can get three meals a day, which is why he came here.

Ghost agrees, rocking back and forth. “Trenton [New Jersey] is a war zone,” he says. His wife is still there, he says, and he wants to bring her to New Haven as an escape.

Ghost is not alone. Many nearby towns do not have emergency shelters, which forces homeless people to take buses or trains to get to a city like New Haven, where they have a better chance of finding a bed. For Bradley, the influx of outsiders is an indication of New Haven’s success at supporting the homeless. He noted that New Haven is the only city in Connecticut that dedicates general revenue funds (business and property taxes) to homeless services. But increased demand from newcomers also strains New Haven’s ability to serve its own homeless population.

There is no clear consensus about whether homelessness is on the rise in New Haven, or if the disturbing data is caused by random variation.

At least on the ground, it seems that demand for homeless services has risen recently in New Haven. The Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen now serves thirty more people on average than it used to. The Chapel on the Green has also seen its numbers rise. Each Sunday, new faces emerge in the crowd. One volunteer, who has been serving the program for the past three years, said that when he scans the crowd, there are only ten or fifteen people who consistently appear; everyone else is different. One of the church sextons attributed that fluidity to the fact that other towns actively send their homeless people to New Haven because the city has more available resources.

Even as many homeless people arrive in New Haven seeking immediate support, the city government is trying to reallocate its resources so that fewer people become homeless in the first place. Martha Okafor said that before, all of the city’s money was going into emergency shelters. But last year, the Community Services Administration, which she leads, redistributed city funds for homeless services based on a review conducted by an independent panel. Two shelters, New Reach and Emergency Shelter Management Services, lost over $100,000 in city funds. That money was given to other agencies for preventative measures such as financial help with utility bills, childcare support, and food stamp assistance. The city’s funds were also used to open Bethel AME Church’s new warming center.

“We’re moving away from just sheltering people and hoping for the best,” said Tepper Bates. “We’re trying to focus at the front door on preventing homelessness and helping people leave shelters as quickly as possible.”

Homeless service providers like Liberty Community Services and Columbus House have programs that can intervene at critical moments to pay a client’s rent, prevent eviction, or help them stabilize their lives before they lose their homes. And rapid re-housing programs can quickly place people in permanent housing by providing initial financial assistance to cover a security deposit, the first month’s rent, or utility bills.

As important as preventative measures are, in the short term, many homeless people across New Haven continue to rely on emergency shelters to get off the streets at night. Columbus House maintains a shelter in the Hill with about one hundred beds that, depending on the type of program someone is a part of, can be slept in for one night or up to six months. In the men’s and women’s wings of the shelter, there are clean, well-lit rooms with a dozen beds reserved for emergency stays of up to ninety days.

But at Emergency Shelter Management Services, a seventy-five-bed men’s emergency shelter on Grand Avenue in Wooster Square, the homeless must line up each day to secure a bed. One Friday afternoon, roughly thirty men were waiting outside the shelter’s entrance at 3:30 pm, half an hour before the shelter opened its doors, with more arriving every few minutes. Many of the men in line were quick to condemn the shelter for poor conditions and a bedbug infestation.

Joshua Hoenig, a 29-year-old from a neighboring town, pulled up his shirt to show bed bug bites that ringed his stomach and covered his arms and legs. He said that he had just been to the hospital because of the bites. Doctors warned him that if he were bitten again, he would risk getting a blood infection. But he had nowhere else to go, so he was back in line.

Other men displayed bedbug bites across their bodies and described bedbugs in mattresses and pillows, a ceiling fan that only blows dust, moldy showers, bathroom tiles caked with grime, blankets that are never cleaned, unsecured storage bins, favoritism, complaints to the Health Department that went ignored. (Okafor said that there was a “moment” when the shelter had bed bugs, but health inspectors visited and certified it.) Even as the city attempts to fund preventative measures, some emergency shelters, like the one on Grand Avenue, seem unable to provide adequate support.

And, as Bradley pointed out, even preventative programs receive little federal funding; housing the chronically homeless remains at the top of the nation’s priorities.

“It’s one of the things where we have to say, come back when you’re desperate,” he said.

“I can’t take being hungry and homeless anymore. I just can’t take it,” Fox says, sitting on a bench in the New Haven Green as dusk falls over the city.

He has just spent a whole day petitioning for unemployment benefits. He never heard back from a temporary staffing company he applied to. And he is losing hope that he could have a good future in New Haven. If you can’t get a job at Yale University or at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, he says, you have to leave the city to find high-paying work.

“I’m just tired of asking people for shit,” he says. “It makes you humble but elusive, because people don’t want to see you anymore.”

Fox pulls on his navy sweatshirt as the cool evening air sweeps over the Green.

“I’m tired of this, I really am, because this is not me,” he says, as the lampposts flicker on for another night.

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