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A Cold Night For New Haven's Homeless, And Those Who Serve Them

Davis Dunavin

Wednesday night was the coldest night of the winter so far in the region, with temperatures dropping to the single digits and wind chills of nearly 20 degrees below zero. In cities like New Haven, this can mean tough times for the homeless, like Jose, a 44-year-old man born and raised in New Haven’s Fairhaven neighborhood.

“Some people could adapt. Some can’t. I adapt,” says Jose as he looks across the green. He’s standing outside the New Haven Free Public Library, and snow has just begun to fall. It won’t last for long - only a quick flurry - but the real cold is still coming.

Jose is planning to spend the night in a teepee under a highway overpass. This is nothing new for him. The area under the overpass is a frequent spot for those without homes. He’s been there a long time.

“Three years ago, there was a big snowstorm,” he says. “I was buried under that snow. You know, my tent collapsed.”

When his feet froze one cold night, he had to put plastic bags on them.

“But now I learned that I gotta keep dry pairs of sneakers somewhere, so I keep that wrapped up, so it don't get wet,” he says. “You know, I just ended up adapting, almost like second nature. 'Cause if you think about it, that's how we lived in the beginning anyways. So I'm just picking up from what we used to do, I guess."

Now he’s honed his survival skills. While tonight would be tough for anyone, he has strategies for keeping warm.

“When it's cold, I just burn a lot of wood,” he says. “And I fill up this pot with all the coals that come off the wood, and I bring it in. And it be warm, it be real nice and warm in there. I guess I built a lot of survival skills in my situation.”

Not everyone can develop the kind of skills Jose has. He’s proud to have them, not that life up to this point has been easy. He sold drugs for years and has been in and out of jail. But he doesn’t have any regrets.

“Somebody’s gotta do the bad things, I guess,” he says. “So that's how everything keeps balanced. I really wouldn't change my past. Especially not all the girls I had. All the friends I had. All the fun I had. A lot of people, they go to school, they go to work, they go home. They don't really live. I lived. I did a lot of things, man, bad and good. I think I got a good heart.”

We made it through. - Brianna

Jose doesn’t know it yet, but he won’t be sleeping on the streets tonight. His friends Kirk and Brianna have arranged a place to stay for him. They’re down the street at a soup kitchen at St. Thomas More Catholic Church.

"We made it through, and we came out the other end, we'd like to think. We're getting there," says Brianna.

She and Kirk have a place to live now thanks to the 100 Days Campaign to End Homelessness, which put more than 100 long-term homeless people in housing. He was the seventh person to get a home, and she was the twelfth.

“Now we gotta readjust,” says Kirk.

Brianna remembers a particularly meaningful moment shortly after they got home for the first time.

“He was literally, like, oh crap, we forgot to get water, we forgot to charge our phone,” she says. “And I was like, Kirk, we have outlets now. We have faucets now. You actually take for granted the little trivial things that are simple.”

For those who are still on the streets, New Haven has three regular shelters. During the winter, another opens up. And on the coldest nights of the year, eight locations around the city are set aside as heating centers- places where the homeless can go to get out of the cold for some time. The New Haven Free Public Library is one of these.

For the city’s soup kitchens, though, the crowd may shrink, but the need doesn’t. Last year, Community Soup Kitchen provided a little over 75,000 meals in the immediate neighborhood of Christ Church in downtown New Haven, where they’re based. That means up to 400 people a day some days. The meals are simple — meat in spaghetti sauce, rice or potatoes.

Executive Director David O’Sullivan says the busiest times, surprisingly, aren’t during the coldest days of the year, but around April and May. As Yale University prepares for graduation, jobs open in temporary fields like landscaping and groundskeeping. That, combined with the warmer weather, brings people without stable homes or incomes looking for jobs.

“At this time of the year, when it’s really cold, it seems like the population kind of stabilizes,” he says. He doesn’t see as many transients -- the people coming to the kitchen during this cold snap are the chronically homeless, who have lived and could live in New Haven without permanent housing. But they’re the ones it’s most important to serve.

“Many of these people feel like they’re so isolated, and they’re so removed from society, they really appreciate the opportunity to speak to someone like a human being,” he says.

The Columbus House is another shelter, the only one in New Haven that serves both men and women year-round. It’s crowded on Wednesday as an “outreach team” of three women leaves to see if anyone else needs help.

They’re Tasha Peters and Nicole Swint, plus Lossie Gorham from the halfway house Marrakech. Tonight they’re going to the New Haven Green, Union Station and a hand-built shack on the Quinnipiac River.

“We usually know most people by face,” says Peters. “Sometimes you can see that people need your help. And you would approach them, but not be offensive and just come right out and say you're homeless. We would basically tell them where we're from.”

They don’t find anyone on the streets tonight. At Union Station, they’re keeping an eye out. They’ve heard reports of a couple living rough there. Supposedly, the woman is pregnant, and they’ve been staying at the station or nearby for the past few nights. But they sweep the grounds and don’t see the couple.

“This is a really good night,” says Peters. “It seems as though we’re not finding anyone. Which is good. Which means that they found shelter and hopefully they’re inside somewhere safe.”

Isabelle Wu is a case manager at the Connection, another local homeless services organization. Her job description is similar to those of the women at Columbus House and Marrakech; she checks up on people who may not have anywhere to go.

The job has taken her, she says, both “on the street and in the woods.” Places like the community under the overpass, usually out of view and out of reach of society. Places where people may be entirely or almost entirely self-sufficient. She’ll help them get to a shelter, if they need to.

“They’ll say, ‘No, we can’t go. We can’t take living together with people in a big room,’” she says. “We don’t push people to the shelter. But in extreme weather, we do call 911. In that kind of weather, people can die.”

Nearly 14,000 homeless people used Connecticut’s shelters and transitional housing programs last year. About 500 of those live in New Haven. Every year, the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness conducts a day-long head count of all homeless people in the state. It’s called the Point-In-Time (PIT) Study, and it’s required by the U.S. Department of Housing to qualify for additional federal funding.

The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness is now looking for volunteers for this year’s study, which will take place Jan. 28.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.