Ben Oldfield is the Medical Director of Population Health at Fair Haven Community Health Care. He moved into the Wooster Square neighborhood two and a half years ago, and has recently spent his time advocating for Y2Y New Haven, a youth homeless shelter proposed for a block away from his home.
The Politic: What brought you to New Haven?
Ben Oldfield: I have been living here for a little over two and a half years now. I came here from Baltimore to do a fellowship at the School of Medicine, and I lived in the same place ever since I moved in: the Wooster Square neighborhood right off Grand Avenue. I was working mostly at the School of Medicine and at the West Haven VA [Veterans’ Affairs] for my first two years here, doing clinical medicine and research into health systems and health equity. As of about 6 months ago, I am working at Fair Haven Community Health Care—which is one of the the Federally Qualified Health Centers in New Haven, located in Fair Haven of course—and I do primary care medicine for families there, and addiction medicine. I am also their Medical Director of Population Health, so that means [managing] certain things pertaining to closing gaps of care, thinking about our whole patient population together, and how we can reach out to particularly vulnerable groups [and] mitigate disparities in the kind of care we’re providing.
How has having spent time at a variety of medical institutions (VA, FQHC) affected how you interact with the city?
I think it’s really helpful to see different kinds of systems. In medicine, probably like others sorts of institutions, different places do things very differently. You can assume that the way you do it, let’s say at the VA, is the way that everybody does it, and that’s very much not the case. What I try to do is take some of the lessons learned from each of these different kinds of spaces and bring that to where I’m at now. For instance, the VA I think does some things very well with, say, focus on the mental health of veterans, doing what they can do to help mitigate homelessness among veterans, [and] addiction-related care. So thinking about what I can do to bring some of those lessons learned to the Community Health Center has been just one example of how you can draw from those experiences, from one system to another.
When you came to New Haven, what made you choose to live in Wooster Square?
I wanted something that was close to downtown. I was also interested in working at Fair Haven Community Health Care even that early on, so I wanted something kind of close to Fair Haven as well. I knew a little about the city because my brother lives in Hamden [with] his family, so I had certainly visited a number of times, and had been to the area. I really liked it. And I bike to commute, so just sort of being accessible geographically is important. To me, it’s the perfect mix of feeling like you’ve got a neighborhood vibe, but at the same time you are easy walking [distance] to the downtown area and even to my place of work, which is nice.
Can you describe what the Wooster Square community is like? Both the physical spaces and what the people are like—who you interact with going to and from home.
I live in a three-story building where I sort of have one half of one story of the building on Lyon Street. There’s a mix of certainly some students—I think grad students—in my building; there’s a professor in the duplex that is adjacent to ours, who I know and actually audited a class with.
In that way, it sort of displays how small and tight-knit New Haven can be. I think there’s a lot of people who walk their dogs who I see and am friendly with, not necessarily on a first name basis. There’s a lot of other bike commuters who I know through that [biking]. Where I live is on the other side of Grand Avenue from Wooster Square Park, and so sometimes I feel like i’m kind of a wannabe Wooster Square Community Member, because I’m not really on that side of the larger avenue. We’re kind of in this little corner here between Grand Avenue and State Street, but I think it’s fair enough to say that I’m a Wooster Square kind of guy.
How has Wooster Square compared to previous neighborhoods that you’ve lived in?
One thing that comes to mind is how close it is to the downtown area—there’s a lot of foot traffic, which I think is a huge plus. I think it’s got a nice mix of residential and other structures around, so Adriana’s, the Italian place, is like two blocks from where I live. I like that place a lot. Wooster Square Coffee is a few blocks away. That’s super accessible; of course everything downtown is super accessible. Unlike places I’ve lived before, you can kind of do a lot of stuff and not have to leave a relatively small radius.
Do you remember when you first started hearing about Y2Y? What were your reactions?
I started hearing about it through some local media coverage of how it was being talked about [and] responded to among neighbors. I want to say there was an article in The New Haven Independent that first got me interested, and was the first time I heard about it. [Y2Y] was an issue that tapped into both my home and work lives, because the site that is being discussed is literally a block from where I live, but then I do work with a lot of adolescents and young adults in the clinic. I’ve seen firsthand how homelessness and housing insecurity can carry a kind of overlapping and compounding milieu of poor outcomes and vulnerabilities to my patients and their families. I was excited about this potential opportunity to support something very local—a block away—but also support something that I know will really fill an important need for some of the patients that I see in the clinic.
What has your involvement with Y2Y been so far?
When I read that initial article in The Independent, I reached out to some of the organizers and met up with them to learn more. I’ve been to one of the planning meetings at the site, and then I did write an op-ed—as a Wooster Square dweller, and physician, and someone who cares about local public health—shortly after that New Haven Independent article came out. So I’ve been, to the extent possible, supportive in person and in writing of the effort.
Have you been involved in any similar projects in New Haven, Baltimore, or other places you have lived?
Yeah. During this research fellowship that I did, I was always interested in figuring out how I could do research that could be locally relevant. I did do some work with APNH [Aids Project New Haven], with a focus on how to better integrate care for opioid abuse disorder or opioid addiction with HIV related care, because that was identified as a need locally. That’s less cut-and-dried advocacy, but it was an effort to try and do research that was important and fill the local need. In Baltimore, I was involved in a variety of things that I thought of as somewhat similar. For example, when I was a resident in Baltimore—[as] a medical resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital—I got involved in some efforts that were related to a strike among the service union workers at the hospital, who were undergoing negotiations for the future of their wages. As a physician, me and some of my colleagues were vocally in support of what the union was trying to negotiate, so in a similar way, [I] did some writing, did some speaking out on behalf of the workers, and trying to draw in that public health and personal health kind of argument to better supporting vulnerable people.
Since you first got involved in Y2Y, have your perspectives changed on how Y2Y should be run or how advocacy should be done?
Yes. One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is that it’s one thing to theoretically engage in the conversation about how important this is for the population of New Haven—and I think that’s the way I tend to think at work, is “yes, obviously this would be a good thing; it’s filling a needed gap”—[but] I think that that kind of thinking with this sort of work always needs to be paired with some sensitivity to how this may impact real people very intimate [with] geography of the place, and the basics of being a good neighbor.
An analogous endeavor that I’ve been somewhat connected as well to is concerns about the APT Foundation, one of the biggest providers of addiction treatment in the city. After there were all of those overdoses of K2 on the Green, that sort of re-stirred up a concern about [whether] the fact that New Haven provides a lot of addiction treatment [could] relate to that. There were people who were accusing the APT foundation for some of that problem, and I think that I found myself in that setting coming at it again [arguing] we need more addiction treatment. APT Foundation provides a critical role for the city, and for surroundings of the city as well, because of its great services and its open-access model. But I think learning more about that problem also brings up the same issue: all that’s true, but there’s also something about being a good neighbor and showing up at community meetings or Management Team meetings, and reaching out to other institutions [and] local businesses nearby. That that needs to be part of these advocacy efforts as well.
Have you had a lot of experiences of talking to neighbors who are upset about Y2Y?
No. I’ve heard those opinions and read about them in local media, but really the people that I know and speak to and live around here feel strongly in support.
That’s one of my goals: to try to have a conversation with people who are not in support. And first just listen and understand what their thoughts are, and then have that be a stimulus to figure out how compromise can happen.
What do you think are the best arguments that anti-Y2Y people have come up with?
I think one of them is related to property value, and I think there’s a concern that if we formally open a youth shelter, what does that mean for property values surrounding that institution? I think that part of why that’s a good argument is that everybody knows about the challenges of housing in New Haven, and property value, and everyone feels those kind of tensions. It’s a very personal thing, that [may not apply] for a lot of us who are supportive of it: we may either not live right near where the site is, or we may be renters—for which we’re not necessarily feeling those tensions.
I think another argument that has come up is that the area [that] Grand Avenue nearby Wooster Square has already has institutions that provide different kinds of social services, so to speak—things like addiction treatment centers. I think that neighbors may say, “Why is our neighborhood the place where that kind of institution tends to concentrate? What would it look like to have a youth shelter in East Rock or some other neighborhood, and why are we not talking about that?”
If you had to talk to these neighbors, what would you say?
I think first of all, it would be great to have more data about the property value question to understand the real impact of it, if there is a real impact. I just don’t know. I think we talk in generalities about that topic a lot. I’m more of a data thinker myself so maybe I’m imposing that, but I would like to know exactly what the impact of this would be. Maybe it would be helpful to look at when these sorts of programs have started elsewhere, let’s say the Y2Y in Harvard Square. Was there any sort of analysis done about that problem?
The other thing I would say is in terms of Wooster Square taking a certain burden of providing services like this, I think it’s helpful to always remember that Youth Continuum already exists at that site, so we already are providing a certain service. The change here would be the expansion of those services, that would actually probably make things more robust and keep people indoors as opposed to having them eventually leave at the end of the day like they have to now. In that setting, I think formalizing the Y2Y component of the partnership between Y2Y and Youth Continuum in this shelter would only potentially keep what are perceived to be problems off the street—keep young people off the streets where they could be exposed to dangers. I think we’re only going to make the problem better by making the services that are already being offered there more robust.
I’ve heard people say that the people who are opposed to Y2Y are a vocal minority. Do you think that statement is fair?
To be honest, I don’t think I have enough information to speak to that. The information I have is what I’ve read, but also the fact that the people that I know, and who I talk to, who live around here are in support. I think that’s a little bit of support to the statement you made, but I don’t know beyond that.
If Y2Y were fully instated in Wooster Square, how do you think the dynamics of the neighborhood would change, if at all?
Obviously, I think this would be a great service to fill an important gap. It wouldn’t fill a gap, I think the problem of youth and young adult homelessness is huge and this one shelter is not going to mitigate that entirely.
I think that one positive impact—and this is really regardless of whether or not Y2Y happens at that site—is that we’ve all been forced to have this conversation, and to some degree come together as a neighborhood. Again, I’ve only been here for two and a half years, but I have really appreciated the voices and the kinds of people who live around here, so going to planning meetings at the site or reading about what’s happening at the Management Team meetings has certainly contributed to my sense of understanding of my community and my sense of belonging. I think there’s a richness to that that’s important.
It’s also the need to see people that I saw at the meeting in support [of Y2Y] and have that be a reason to actually stop and say hi and introduce myself, like “I saw you at that meeting.” Now all of a sudden you’re not just that person that bikes by every day, but now I nod to you and I know your name. That sort of cohesion I think is really important for your home neighborhood, so that’s been a positive outcome regardless of what the formal outcome is.
Out of the advocacy efforts that Y2Y supporters have tried, what do you think has worked well? What hasn’t worked so well?
I think that bringing people together in person has worked well. Being at a planning meeting, an organizing meeting, with people who are currently working at Youth Continuum, or some of the organizers for Y2Y has… I’m just learning a lot about my neighborhood. I’m learning about this problem, we’re coming up with strategies to help mitigate it, working together as a neighborhood, and I feel like that’s been really effective.
I think what we could do better of is trying to engage the people who are not supportive. I don’t exactly know how to do that other than just sort of asking people going to the dry cleaner’s, [or] going to the bakery [and] asking people what they think about it. We’re all busy people and sometimes that stuff gets pushed to the wayside. I would like to see more opportunities, both formal and informal. We could also just set up neighborhood potlucks and really emphatically invite people who we know are not supportive, and start to have that conversation that way. Those conversations may be happening, they’re just not something I’ve seen or been a part of. I think that’s something that we need to do more of.