UP CLOSE: COVID-19, homelessness and New Haven’s response

COVID-19, homelessness and New Haven’s response

Published on April 21, 2020

“What am I supposed to do?” asked a man at a March 19 COVID-19 press conference on the steps of City Hall. He was one of a half-dozen homeless individuals who interrupted Mayor Justin Elicker’s daily briefing. “Am I supposed to sleep on the Green and if I get sick, infect everybody that I get in contact with? You guys have homes to go to … but we have nowhere to go. We’re [at the] bottom of the barrel right now.”

A day prior, Elicker had announced New Haven’s plans for the city’s homeless population. Those plans — which include a self-isolation site at Hill Regional Career High School for those who test positive for COVID-19 and hotel rooms for those who are asymptomatic or awaiting test results — came to fruition over the next three weeks. But the measures were in the early stages on March 19 and did not solve homeless individuals’ immediate problem: finding a bed for that night. 

While Elicker focused his March 19 remarks on community criticism of his plans for Career, Bryant Tatum, who is experiencing homelessness, pressed the mayor on his plans for homeless individuals who had not tested positive for COVID-19. Elicker acknowledged a shelter capacity issue and pointed to 24 hotel rooms the city had rented. But Tatum was told those rooms were for the elderly, he responded.

When another individual asked where he was supposed to sleep that night, Elicker asked that he attempt to contact a shelter. But that man had tried the shelters, he said. They were full. Elicker promised to talk to him after the briefing.

Homeless individuals — an at-risk population in New Haven even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the city — are especially vulnerable to a public health crisis for which the main recommendation is “stay at home.” 

Beds are far from the only issue. During the day, those who typically spend time in libraries or coffee shops — in a city where winter temperatures often dip below freezing — are now confined to the street if not placed in a state-contracted hotel room. Elicker closed the Elm City’s public libraries on March 13. Three days later, Gov. Ned Lamont ordered all restaurants, bars, gyms and theaters in the state to shut their doors. 

In addition to finding a shelter, hand-washing — the CDC’s main public health recommendation — becomes near impossible for the homeless population when soup kitchen bathrooms are unavailable as food providers switch to take-away meals. When food providers shared that problem with city officials during a weekly COVID-19 conference call, the city installed port-a-potties on the Green. 

New Haven’s pandemic policies — from port-a-potties to emptying the city’s shelters — have been the result of collaboration at the local and state levels. While some service providers have praised New Haven for a robust and relatively quick response, others have called on the city to do more. 

When the immediate storm passes, the challenges will be far from over. New Haven has more shelter beds than any other city in the region, but still falls short of the city’s need. Those who can find a bed night-to-night struggle to transition to long-term affordable housing — although the pandemic application process has been expedited in some cases. 

And the economic picture is grim. At the beginning of the month, Connecticut processed more unemployment applications in a week than it usually does in a year. Homeless individuals who were poised to have stable income sources — which are essential to finding permanent shelter — have lost those opportunities. Those without job opportunities prior to the pandemic are unlikely to find them as the local economy struggles to rebound. 

Looking ahead at the coming months and even years, service providers, local officials and state leaders will have to address what some predict will be an unprecedented strain on homeless services in the Elm City. 

You guys have homes to go to … but we have nowhere to go. We’re [at the] bottom of the barrel right now.”

Social services in a time of social distancing 

Sunrise Cafe went grab-and-go. Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen shifted part of its operations to delivery. Several smaller pantries shuttered their doors. In a matter of days, New Haven’s entire homeless service apparatus had transformed. 

The process began in mid-March, when Lamont declared a public health emergency in Connecticut on March 10, and Elicker followed suit in the Elm City five days later. These proclamations sparked the beginning of a weeks-long effort to curb the spread of the virus in New Haven’s homeless community. 

Sunrise Cafe, which offers restaurant-style breakfast services, set up a tent on March 12 and plans to continue grab-and-go services for the duration of the pandemic, administrator Art Hunt told the News. Community Soup Kitchen began offering take-out through its dining room backdoor on March 10.

Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen piloted a similar method for the first three weeks of the crisis, Executive Director Steve Werlin said in an interview. DESK has a split operation: hot meals for the homeless and a pantry service for those who have shelter but struggle to put food on the table. Werlin said that DESK hopes to end the service for the homeless by working diligently with city officials to connect those individuals with hotel rooms. He hopes to shift the pantry to delivery to minimize outdoor trips for clients, many of whom are at high-risk for serious cases of COVID-19. 

Most homeless shelters in New Haven have congregate housing, where residents sleep, eat and live in communal spaces. The Elm City’s largest shelter, Columbus House — which houses 101 residents at its main site and 75 at a warming center across the street — immediately changed protocol in an effort to implement social distancing, Chief Development Officer John Brooks told the News.

Initial measures included staggered dinner meals and CDC-recommended screenings upon entry. Water fountains became hand-washing stations; hand-washing became a requirement in the lobby and dining room.

Amid fears that volunteers could bring the virus within shelter doors, volunteer activity ground to a quick halt and frontline staff members — the “unsung heroes” of the entire operation, in Brooks’ words — began serving evening meals. Visitors were banned. 

While residents are normally free to leave during the day and come back at night, the shelter required them to stay indoors, spare scheduled outdoor time in small groups. By late March, fresh air was no longer an option. While residents complied with ever-stricter regulations, Brooks described the situation as “tough.” 

“We’re really on a lockdown,” Columbus House resident Kimberly Kinell told the New Haven Register. Other women lamented their inability to see their children given restrictions on daytime movement. 

And while the virus did not spread throughout the shelter — there were no positive cases as of April 3, when the last residents left for area hotels — fear did. 

“We’re all so close together,” Jennifer Palladino told the Register. Shelter residents share sleeping quarters and communal spaces, making compliance with CDC social distancing guidelines — which stipulate six feet between beds and in general — a tremendous challenge.

To hotels, from shelters and streets 

On March 16, one day after declaring a state of emergency, Elicker put homeless shelter decompression at the top of his stated priority list. New Haven’s shelters are still up and running, but the city needed alternatives given the inherent difficulties of social distancing, Elicker said at the time.

Two days later, the city presented several solutions. March 18 marked the beginning of the three-week transition from shelters to hotel rooms — one that proved more challenging than anticipated, Elicker said on April 20. 

In what Brooks described as the “first wave” of the process, the city finalized a contract with a local hotel for 24 double-occupancy rooms. Soon after the city contract, the United Way of Greater New Haven secured an additional 20 rooms in coordination with state officials. The first wave focused on the most high-risk shelter residents: those over the age of 60 and those with underlying health conditions. Around 20 Columbus House residents fit this profile. Residents of Martha’s Place, a women’s shelter, filled the remainder of the hotel rooms. 

The state ramped up its involvement on March 28 after FEMA approved Lamont’s presidential major disaster declaration request, unlocking federal funding that will reimburse up to 75 percent of Connecticut’s COVID-19-related expenditures. 

The process began with an executive order: Homeless shelters across the state had to close. Over the next week, the state footed the bill for around another 100 homeless individuals in New Haven to move into hotels and folded the original 24 city-rented rooms into its contracts. 

That process was not without its challenges: The day before a scheduled move to Best Western of West Haven, West Haven Police Chief Joseph S. Perno delivered a letter to the hotel requiring nearly $5,000 per day in police services. While this temporarily put the deal in jeopardy, the state resurrected its contract two days later and rented 100 rooms with no provisions for extra-duty police officers. New Haven Community Services Administrator Dr. Mehul Dalal confirmed in an April 18 email that this effort completed the relocation process for New Haven’s individual adult shelters.

The city’s youth and family shelters are not slated to move residents to hotels. Christian Community Action’s Hillside Family Shelter — which houses about 10 families in single-entry, single-exit apartment units — is fully operative with some remote services, Executive Director Bonita Grubbs told the News on April 8. Dalal told the News in an April 20 email that Life Haven, a family shelter, “has separate rooms already” and that Youth Continuum Shelter “reduced occupancy to the point where clients have their separate spaces.” 

Once in hotels, homeless individuals receive three meals per day via a city-operated delivery service, Dalal said. While the city is fronting the costs as of now, Elicker said on April 7 that he anticipates 75 percent reimbursement from the federal government — a figure made possible by his earlier emergency declaration. Case workers and residential staff are present in hotels, but they conduct most of their work remotely, Brooks told the News in an interview. 

Still, the three-week hotel room relocation process did not house the Elm City’s entire homeless population. For those without a shelter bed prior to the transition period, the process of finding accommodation is similar to its pre-pandemic counterpart: calling 2-1-1, a housing hotline operated by United Way. 

Teresa Lyck, who attended Elicker’s March 19 briefing, said at the time that she was put on hold with 2-1-1 for hours, and to no avail. According to the 2-1-1 website, nine percent of housing calls in the past month have gone unmet. 

“The city is currently working with our partners on a multidisciplinary plan to serve the remaining unsheltered,” Dalal wrote in an April 18 email. “This plan includes outreach and engagement, from medical and behavioral health teams as well as a plan for triage into hotels or housing as available.”

Brooks told the News that Columbus House’s frontline workers will conduct routine street outreach for the duration of the crisis. Based on an early April headcount of clients, Werlin knows of at least 42 people still on the street and estimates that the figure is closer to 100 when adding estimates from other organizations. DESK, he said, continues to serve as an entry point for those seeking accommodation. 

Self-isolation without a home

As hospital systems across the country are overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, those who test positive but do not require intensive care are asked to self-isolate at home. But for those without one, this is an impossible task. Recognizing this challenge, the city on March 18 announced plans to erect a self-isolation site for the homeless at Hill Regional Career High School. 

Noting its proximity to Yale New Haven Hospital, a well-suited gymnasium and central location along major roads, the federal government designated Career as a regional emergency shelter site following Hurricane Irene in 2011. As such, the city can expect federal reimbursement for its use — a factor that played heavily in Elicker’s decision to choose it over two other locally identified shelter sites: Hillhouse High School and Wilbur Cross High School. 

But the mayor’s choice quickly drew criticism. The morning after Elicker’s announcement, nine leaders from the Hill neighborhood — which houses the school-turned-self-isolation-site — gathered outside of Career to condemn the mayor’s location decision on the grounds that the Hill is already oversaturated with social services. With 24 providers, the neighborhood shoulders a greater burden than any other.

In a press conference the following afternoon, Elicker acknowledged the validity of these concerns but emphasized the need to act quickly. 

“We don’t have time right now to wait,” he said. “We need to look at the examples of other communities that are 11 days ahead of us in this experience where emergency health providers can’t cope with the number of people who are sick.” 

At the time, New Haven had seven confirmed cases. That number had grown to 361 by the time the Career site was ready to open on April 7.

In addition to systemic issues of oversaturation, former Ward 3 Alder Latrice James expressed her concern that COVID-19 patients would be able to walk in and out of the Career site, endangering Hill residents. At a Board of Education meeting the following Monday, several parents worried about health complications for their children upon returning to a school that had had COVID-19 within its walls.

Elicker and Emergency Operations Director Rick Fontana ensured the public that the city would implement stringent security measures and rigorous cleaning methods: round-the-clock police presence and video surveillance while the site houses the homeless, and a deep clean with hospital-grade disinfectant before students return to campus.

“This was a bit of a break for them from being homeless. Their concerns are really: ‘Where are they gonna go after?’ They may not be infectious anymore, but they’re still homeless.”

—Chaney Kalinich ’19 SPH ’20, Medical Reserve Corps volunteer

Elicker found support for his plan from the majority of the city’s Board of Education, which voted in favor of the Career self-isolation site on March 23. Still, BOE member Darnell Goldson — joined by two of his colleagues — asked the mayor to reconsider, citing concerns similar to those of Hill leaders. Larry Conaway, who voted against Goldson’s resolution, sent an email to his colleagues the following Friday expressing regret for not standing against the Career site. 

While the debate over the Career site ensued in meetings and at press conferences, the city faced difficulties in getting the facility up and running. On March 20 — two days after Elicker initially laid out the city’s plans — Fontana said that Career was “fully, from a logistical standpoint, ready to go.” After putting 40 beds in place in the first 24 hours, the city increased capacity to 50, which proved a “more manageable” number than the planned 75, Elicker said on April 7.

But staffing was another story. The city would need nurses, support staff, police and on-call doctors to stand up the site.

On March 26, Elicker issued a call for help, asking New Haveners with medical experience to sign up for the Medical Reserve Corps, a group of volunteers that support mass care settings and other public health activities. By March 27, Connecticut had 235 sign-ups statewide.

About one week later, New Haven trained its first 19 volunteers on April 2. The group — mostly nurses — was tasked with “checking temperatures [and] screening people,” a role New Haven Health Director Maritza Bond described as “basic medical follow up and triage.” The city also arranged for an on-call doctor and behavioral practitioner, she said. The next day, Bond and Fontana certified an additional six trainees. 

By April 7, the Career site was on standby, awaiting its first patients. The first two patients entered the facility on April 9. 

Chaney Kalinich ’19 SPH ’20, a certified EMT, is working at Career as an MRC volunteer. She told the News that the Career patients have expressed concerns about where they will turn once their stay at the self-isolation site is over. One patient who was discharged this weekend is currently living out of his car, she said. Another is scheduled to leave soon and his caseworkers have been unable to find accommodation — hotel rooms, she said, are not available. 

“This was a bit of a break for them from being homeless,” Kalinich told the News. “Their concerns are really: ‘Where are they gonna go after?’ They may not be infectious anymore, but they’re still homeless.”

Elicker noted on April 20 that patients discharged from Career no longer carry transmission risks but emphasized the need for more hotel rooms. While the state has secured agreements with two area hotels, the contract process has stalled due to hotels’ “willingness … to open up,” Elicker said. City officials are working diligently to expand hotel availability, he continued.

Fontana said that no one has been discharged from Career without a place to go. The city found a hotel room for one individual discharged on April 20, where he will stay for several days before moving to another accommodation, Fontana said. 

Past the pandemic 

As of April 20, eight homeless individuals in New Haven who have tested positive for COVID-19 are housed at or recently discharged from Career. Just under 200 are housed in hotels, and many remain on the street as the city works to find accommodation.

New Haven plans to keep these measures in place for the duration of the public health crisis. But when the fog has lifted, some are questioning whether the Elm City can — or should — return to normal.

New Haven resident Michael Cutler, who has been in and out of homelessness and currently lives with a friend, told the New Haven Register that hotel rooms and high school gymnasiums are temporary fixes to a plight that predates the pandemic.

“It’s got to be a long-term solution,” he said. “Humanity is not just something part-time. You don’t help another person just because you’re in a crisis.”

New Haven offers more homeless services than any of its neighbors by a wide margin, but service providers and city officials agree that shelters fall short of meeting the homeless population’s needs. Those who can get into shelters live in crowded spaces, and despite the Elm City boasting more affordable housing than surrounding cities — 32 percent as compared to 10 percent or less — expensive accommodation options make leaving homeless shelters and city streets a challenge.

New Haven, Sunrise Cafe’s Hunt said, is not unique in “not providing particularly robust services for the homeless.” He does not anticipate the situation changing for the better or worse in the long term. Still, Hunt credited the Elm City with a COVID-19 response that has “really ramped up to be a pretty robust [one].”

“It’s got to be a long-term solution. Humanity is not just something part-time. You don’t help another person just because you’re in a crisis.”

—Michael Cutler, New Haven resident

Despite its limitations, New Haven’s existing service coordination laid the groundwork for rapid mobilization amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Coordinated Access Network — formed a decade ago at the behest of government officials, shelter representatives, health centers and funders — continues to use 2-1-1 to connect homeless individuals with available housing options as those options shift from shelter beds to hotel rooms. Nine percent of the 1,349 New Haven housing calls the CAN has received since March 21 have gone unmet, compared to 14 percent of a similar figure in the same period last year. The city has worked with the Greater New Haven CAN since the beginning of the shelter relocation process, Dalal told the News.

About 10 months ago, food servicers created an analogous Coordinated Food Assistance Network that has proven invaluable in recent weeks, Hunt said. Throughout the pandemic, CFAN has hosted twice-weekly calls to ensure that food banks and soup kitchens are working in lockstep. Food providers are also on twice-weekly calls with city officials.

“[Food and housing] efforts have been extremely well-coordinated through partnerships and coordinated networks that had already existed prior to this,” Werlin said. “The fruits of the last 10 years of collaborative work [among shelters] have really paid off in a crisis … All of the collaborative work [at CFAN has made the pandemic response] a lot smoother than it could have been.” 

For the most part, providers and officials agree that it is too early to anticipate specific effects that COVID-19 will have on homeless services. The city’s homelessness budget has flatlined in recent years and Elicker’s proposed allocation mirrors that of his predecessor’s last two budgets. How the COVID-19 pandemic may affect those numbers depends on the trajectory and longevity of the pandemic as well as the level of federal support the Elm City receives, Dalal said. 

Right now, New Haven is focused on connecting homeless individuals to state and federal financial assistance programs. When asked if the pandemic will change how his department approaches homeless services, Dalal said, “I suspect yes, but it’s too early to tell exactly how.” 

One thing that will not change is the city’s stance on homeless encampments, Elicker said on April 20. The Elm City has historically cracked down on encampments, including a May 2014 attempt by Amistad Catholic Worker House to establish a tent city in a vacant city-owned lot. Amistad Founder Mark Colville argued that New Haven’s opposition to encampments exacerbated the current crisis, but Elicker said that the pandemic has not changed the city’s position. 

Perhaps the pandemic has expedited the housing application process in a way that could outlive the current crisis, Brooks offered. Columbus House has placed 44 people into permanent housing since March 20, according to a press release. Brooks told the News in an April 3 interview that the process was quicker than usual for those who were already eligible for permanent housing.

But whether prospective applicants enter the housing process in the first place directly depends on their economic circumstances — and across the board, predictions for New Haven’s economy, and its impact on the city’s homeless, are grim. 

Those impacts are already visible. DESK has seen increased demand for its services, largely as a result of new people entering the system, Werlin said. Grubbs told the News that two families at Hillside were slated to move into permanent housing soon, but their heads of household have been laid off after a week working a new job and had a new opportunity cancelled, respectively. 

Elicker worried in an April 7 press conference that the state’s efforts to decompress its prison system would result in an influx of people requiring homeless services. And for those who were barely above water prior to the outbreak, the next few months will prove vital to lasting economic stability. 

According to Dalal, it is “undoubtedly the case” that there will be a greater demand for basic needs services.

“It is my hope we see this as a lesson that we cannot ignore segments of our community,” he said. “The pandemic makes clear that our long-term health and economic well-being depend on us seeing this as a collective problem.”

(Courtesy of Columbus House)


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