New Haven’s city hall looked as it did any other day. But inside, in the Alders’ Room, about 50 people were sitting nervously. They intermittently looked at their notes and at the people surrounding them. They straightened their clothes and cracked their knuckles. They were all waiting to give three-minute pitches to the Board of Alders, hoping to get funding from the city block grant for their nonprofits.
More than two hours into the session, when tiredness was overtaking nervousness, and the few kids present were starting to yawn, a man in a gray suit stood up. He stepped towards the podium with hesitation, and he turned back to the audience as if he was looking for reassurance. What he saw were about 20 people standing up, following him to the podium to stand beside him during his critical pitch. He was asking money for the Believe in Me Empowerment Corporation shelter. The group included eight women, and a few came forward to share their stories: these women used to be homeless, but they got back on their feet, thanks to the shelter and the case management it offered them.
“I don’t know what would have happened without Mr. Walker’s support,” said Vanessa. The testimonies were brief (they had to be) and poignant. After they talked, everyone in the group hugged. They took a group photo and left, looking satisfied and proud.
In the last few years, shelters in New Haven have been finding it harder to receive funding because government spending has been directed towards creating affordable housing projects. The costs of operating shelters have gone up, but neither federal nor state funding for shelters has increased. As a result, some nonprofit shelters have been forced to shut down. New Reach’s Careways shelter for single women with children is one of them.
According to Kellyann Day, New Reach’s Chief Executive Officer, the reasons for Careways closing were “purely economic. I don’t believe that any of our contributors either public or private would want us to continue to operate a program that could potentially bankrupt the agency.” The shelter stopped receiving women in July of 2017, but the shelter did not shut down until every woman who was already there was moved to a different shelter or found housing.
New Reach is a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter for people who are struggling with homelessness. They also develop affordable housing projects and provide short and long-term case management aid.
Even though the decision to close down Careways was difficult, Day believes that it was necessary so as not to financially jeopardize other programs. “We made a very smart decision to close [Careways] so as not to torn the other two programs. One is the is the largest family shelter in the state and the other is the only shelter for single women in New Haven which is called Martha’s Place.”
In spite of shelters like BIMEC and Martha’s Place, the closing of Careways means that there are fewer beds for women and for women with children in New Haven. Most shelters are dedicated to single men.
Both Day and New Haven’s Alder Abigail Roth agree that there are more beds for men because they represent a larger part of the homeless population. Yet, the homeless female population is significant, especially among youth (14 to 18 year-olds), of which women represent 43% of the individuals struggling with homelessness in 2017, according to the Connecticut Counts Report on Homelessness.
Alder Roth said that when a place like Careways shelter closes, it is a priority “to ensure that there’s not a woman who needs a place to go and not have a place.” The Connecticut Counts Report states that 20% of the unsheltered homeless population in New Haven have been victims of domestic abuse. In 2017, there was not one, but nine women in New Haven who were both abused and homeless, and couldn’t get into a safe place.
According to New Reach, domestic violence is the leading cause for women to experience homelessness. Then, this should be considered when they arrive at a shelter even if it is not exclusively for women. “I think it is valid to single out that [because of experience with domestic violence] women experiencing homelessness could be more comfortable in a space without cis-men,” stated Lynn-Green.
Erika Lynn-Green ‘18, former advocacy chair of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, believes that the shelters’ funding problems extend beyond the Elm City.
“People deserve services if they need them and housing, but it’s tricky in terms of funding and numbers. I don’t think there is an easy solution. Right now it’s a crisis, nationally, in terms of funding especially at the federal level and that trickles down.”
Even when shelters struggle with funding, there are both government and private initiatives that address homelessness in New Haven. In fact, according to the Connecticut Counts Report, from 2014 to 2017, homelessness fell by 24% . This is the result of nonprofits efforts and government programs such as the strategy to end chronic homelessness among veterans and the new affordable housing task force.
“Months ago, the Board of Alders passed a resolution to establish an [affordable housing] task force that will have seven people on it, three of them appointed by the mayor and four of them appointed by the president of the Board of Alders,” explained Alder Roth. “I think the entire Board of Alders agree that it is critical to address the need for more affordable housing in New Haven.”
This task force’s purpose is aligned with the state and national strategy to solve homelessness which primarily focuses on expanding affordable housing options. Despite their efforts, affordable housing is still out of reach for many minimum wage workers. A 2011 report from the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness states that a minimum wage worker in New Haven earns $8.25 an hour. be able to afford housing without jeopardizing other aspects of their wellbeing, workers would need to earn at least $23.96 hourly.
“There needs to be a real range of [housing] options [for] people who have very low-paying jobs and are at the shelters.”
Alder Roth said that offering “slightly less expensive housing” is not enough. “I know there’s been a lot of talking about single-room occupancy residences, and I think that’s definitely part of the equation, but there’s everything from houses that have been abandoned that the city and organizations will convert to lower-income housing or building residences with micro-units.”
Day emphasizes that addressing homelessness should be a “support continuum.” Shelters should always be working on prevention, supportive housing, and affordable housing. In regard to reopening Careways, Day said that she is not an advocate for creating more shelters because New Haven’s policies should be dedicated to finding people stable housing, rather than shelters.
“New Haven provides a lot of funds, but it is a municipality, it is not able to on its own deliver the funds that every single service provider needs,” said Lynn-Green.
In addition to funding, changes in affordable housing legislation is necessary.
“One of the things that is clear is that there needs to be some changes to zoning to allow more types of housing in certain locations because, for example, single-room occupancy accommodations are only allowed to be built in some parts of the city,” Roth said.
Addressing homelessness is even broader than prevention, affordable housing, and legislation, it is collaborative work. According to a New Reach report, 1 out of 30 children are homeless in the United States. Struggling with homelessness goes beyond New Haven and Connecticut so the solution cannot be limited to this region.
“If people are currently looking for shelter and there are no more shelters in New Haven, they’ll find a shelter in Waterbury or Norwalk, so we have to think broader. People who are struggling don’t recognize those lines, they just know that they are in crisis and they need a place to stay,” said Day. “We [New Haven] have a great opportunity in this state to really effect some change in the nation because we are small enough to try new things.”
Despite the progress that has been made, 37% of Connecticut households are at risk of experiencing homelessness, according to New Reach. Shelters are an immediate response to an urgent need, and they also help people find a new, permanent home by offering case management, childcare, and employment assistance.
“The shelters have a much broader role of connecting people with agencies to get financial assistance, training tools, and jobs, to ultimately not having to stay in the shelter,” said Roth.
People still need shelters, but not everyone who needs one requires the same kind of services. Demographics and personal situations vary the way people experience homelessness. For women, it is not only matters of domestic and sexual abuse that should be addressed because even matters of female basic hygiene, often get overlooked.
“In general, shelters tend to not be attuned to menstrual needs. There are often shortages of pads and tampons, especially in mixed-gender shelters. It is an essential need that people who are donating don’t often think about,” thinks Lynn-Green.
Offering women the services the need, from pads to trauma-counseling, doesn’t require reopening Careways, but it does require shelters to have professional staff, trained in gender-specific issues. And to do this, shelters need funding.
Both shelters and government are trying to create a city in which shelters are no longer needed because everyone can afford a permanent residence. But New Haven hasn’t reach that point, according to Day, shelters are still “the safety net for those who have no place to go.”
Success stories are those of women who found a safe space in shelters, where they felt welcomed and understood. This is what helps women like Kecia, who shared her testimony in Elm City Echo, to find a home:
“I finally went back to New Haven, switching in and out of homeless shelters and transitional housing, ending up at Martha’s place. I’ve been here for seven months, taking care of my business, sorting out my life, following the rules. I’ve been met with patience from the staff here. Today I found my first apartment— I have lived my whole life without ever having an apartment of my own. It has given me so much faith in myself. I’m going to be clean, to be sober, to have a good life. Things are finally fitting into place. I’m working through the suffering and figuring my life out. I’m doing it all on my own— for myself, and for my kids. I won’t disappoint anyone anymore. I have the strength to pull myself through.”