Don't Sweep People Away

July 14, 2023 - New Haven Independent (Opinion/Editorial)
by: Kelly Fitzgerald, Margaret Middleton, Jennifer Paradis, Jim Pettinell, iSteve Werlin, Susan Compton Agamy, Mary Guerrera, Karen DuBois-Walton

As the crisis of homelessness grows in our community, so do the number of people sleeping in places that aren’t meant for habitation — under bridges, in woods and parks, and in other public places like train stations. The estimated number of unsheltered people in Greater New Haven has grown from 76 households to 128 at this time last year, an increase of 68 percent. As a result, as many as 60 people per night have sought emergency refuge in Union Station over the last six months.

These people are now at even more serious risk. In recent weeks, state and local authorities within the Department of Transportation and Park New Haven (the New Haven Parking Authority, who manages Union Station) have begun to remove from the train station, through enforcement tactics, anyone who is observed violating their code of conduct. 

On Monday night, state police began asking those seated on the benches at Union Station to produce tickets for an imminently-departing train so as to justify their presence.

These enforcement tactics disproportionately target unhoused individuals by focusing on those who are ​“laying down in the station” or who are ​“placing baggage or personal items on seats or benches”; it is just the latest example of the increasing and troubling trend toward the criminalization of homelessness in our community.

Based on our collective decades-worth of experience we call on our government partners to work with us to identify how best to serve people staying in encampments in ways that reduce harm, meet basic needs in an appropriate and accessible manner, and avoid further traumatizing our most vulnerable and dispossessed neighbors.

To be sure, there are several differences between Union Station and what is more typically thought of as an ​“encampment”: it’s more heavily used by the public; there are no tents. But the same principles apply, just as they do to any situation in which an individual or group is residing in a place not meant for human habitation. 

From the perspective of those we serve — the people who sleep there night after night — they are seeking the same thing: safety and respite.

The prevalence of unsheltered people across our state — whether inside train stations, in public parks, or throughout downtowns — is a direct result of our community’s collective failure to provide an adequate supply of deeply affordable housing, that is, housing options that are affordable to those receiving federal or state housing assistance. Deeply affordable housing options are what is necessary to execute the most successful strategy to solving homelessness: permanent supportive housing.

Last month, our General Assembly and our Governor passed and signed into law a two-year budget that failed to include much-needed investments in deeply affordable housing or emergency housing response services. Members of this group joined homelessness service providers, people with lived expertise, and other partners from across the state in advocating for funding that would support our services and get people housed. We asked for a $50 million commitment as a reasonable response to this crisis; we got $2 million. We can’t reasonably expect to address this crisis with 4 percent of what is needed.

On the streets of New Haven, and in Union Station, we see the results of this collective failure. Because our community cannot offer sufficient, adequate, and acceptable housing or shelter, it is inhumane and unethical to sweep people out of encampments or force them out from relative safety and into the streets. Doing so not only puts them in real and immediate danger; it also impairs our community’s ability to serve them in a manner that builds trust and that results in moving to permanent housing.

This group of providers strongly endorses the ​“Principles for Addressing Encampments” published by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) and asks our government partners to fully implement them before dispersing any additional encampments or forcibly removing any sojourners from other train stations (as is the plan, according to DOT).

USICH calls for the creation of a ​“cross-agency, multi-sector response to encampments” to include people living in such places. Those staying in encampments know best why they have chosen that location over others. Before dispersing an encampment those needs should be met with proposed and acceptable alternative solutions. 

The participants in a cross-agency, multi-sector response to encampments should bring the resources at their disposal to bear and not merely make requests of the social service agencies and faith-based organizations already doing this work on the frontlines daily; it is both unfair and unproductive to demand a response from community-based organizations without offering the appropriate resources to assist. If the local or state government decision-makers conclude that an encampment impacts the health and safety of the community, then they should simultaneously ask service providers what the cost will be to provide a USICH-compliant response and put their energy into marshaling resources not already committed to homelessness services to meet the needs of the people they plan to displace.

USICH also calls for alternative solutions for shelter or housing offered to encampment residents to ​“account for personal choice, that they are voluntary, sanitary, safe, and connect people to services and housing.” Merely offering a bed in a shelter or a chair in a warming center is simply not good enough.

Although we applaud and appreciate the City’s efforts to quickly stand up 50 new shelter beds in a Columbus House building on the Boulevard, doing so does not, in itself, absolve the community from our responsibility to offer housing options, nor does it in any way entitle or empower Park New Haven, DOT, or state police to remove people from Union Station. The ineffectiveness of this effort is evident in the relatively few folks from Union Station who took up the offer of relocation to the Boulevard.

Encampment residents should be offered a range of options because, like all of us, each person has different needs in terms of location, community, transportation, sense of safety, need to store belongings, and ability to meet their activities of daily living. No one should be forced to choose between the feeling of relative safety in an encampment of peers and being displaced from a loved one (or a pet) in a congregate sleeping environment. Doing so will only cause further instability and trauma.

Our community needs to do what other communities have done and offer a range of shelter options, such as ​“tiny houses,” safe parking lots, and sanctioned encampments or safe sleeping sites.

Given the range of best-practice options, we ask that the Department of Transportation and Park New Haven reject enforcement tactics in addressing the Union Station encampment. Because they are not, by their own repeated admission, mental health or community services providers, we ask that they work more directly with those of us who are. A nuanced, collaborative, multi-agency response would appropriately support the work that community-based organizations (like our own) have been doing for decades and would ultimately put the individuals at Union Station on the path toward housing in a compassionate and person-centered manner. We know that we, as a community, can do much better by working collaboratively toward common, attainable goals.

The Department of Transportation is, of course, simply reacting to a problem that is bigger than their state agency. To reiterate: unsheltered homelessness in all its forms are a reflection and a stark symptom of our collective disinvestment in deeply affordable housing and our homelessness response system. As our housing crisis continues, cities in Connecticut — along with most cities in the US — are going to see more encampments and more people sleeping in public, putting their own health and their own safety at risk. 

Unilaterally sweeping these people away is not the answer. The answer is plentiful and accessible deeply affordable housing and a network of compassionate crisis-response providers, well-supported through proper training and fair compensation. An enforcement approach, as implemented by DOT, is a dangerous step toward criminalizing homelessness, breaking down critical trust, and prolonging this crisis.

The present authors call upon the state Department of Transportation and Park New Haven to: 

(1) postpone indefinitely their directive to law enforcement and security personnel to remove by force unhoused individuals from Union Station and other stations around the state, and 

(2) work with community-based providers, such as the Greater New Haven Regional Alliance to End Homelessness, local authorities, and, most especially, people with lived expertise, to develop a more appropriate, long-term strategy to reducing the usage of train stations as places of refuge for the unhoused. 

Ultimately, we hope that DOT, Park New Haven, and statewide leadership will champion the most appropriate means of accomplishing the latter — by investing in housing and services that will solve homelessness in Connecticut altogether.

Kelly Fitzgerald is the senior director of financial stability at the United Way of Greater New Haven. Margaret Middleton is the CEO of Columbus House. Jennifer Paradis is the executive director of the Beth-El Center of Milford. Jim Pettinelli is the executive director of Liberty Community Services. Steve Werlin is the executive director of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen. Susan Compton Agamy is executive director at ACT Spooner House. Mary Guerrera is executive director of Fellowship Place. Karen DuBois-Walton is president of Elm City Communities and executive director of the Housing Authority of New Haven.

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