Inside Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen’s Drop-In and Resource Center, Alvin* was sitting at a small, tucked-away table in front of a booth where a young woman was cheerily handing out coffee. He had laid out a black and gray camouflage backpack sideways and open on the table, and the pattern matched the one on his thin, hooded jacket. As Alvin offered a sturdy handshake, the necklace of red, green, and yellow beads shining against his brown skin was unmistakable.
Despite circumstances, Alvin was in good spirits. Two weeks prior, he had finally received his housing voucher, which will guarantee him some form of shelter for the next year. He thought that should be more than enough time to “get [his] stuff together” and find permanent housing. Crinkles around his brown eyes revealed the smile behind his wrinkled mask.
But for Alvin, good news has been a long time coming. After growing up in Bridgeport, he has faced housing insecurity since the ‘90s, and by 2008, he was on the street entirely. He slept behind buildings, in parks, in garages, even in the yards of abandoned homes. He said it felt like every door he knocked on just wouldn’t open.
“I think when you don’t have nothing, you look at people who have,” Alvin said. “And you configure in your mind, how do I get there? Because right now, it’s food, clothing, and shelter. That’s my pie in the sky, that’s my picket fence, that’s my dream. It seems like it’s one of the hardest things to do.”
Alvin is just one of the hundreds of people affected by housing insecurity or homelessness in New Haven today.
According to New Haven’s most recently available Point-In-Time Count, a systematic manual headcount of the homeless population that happens across the state on one day each January, there were 503 people experiencing housing insecurity that night in 2020. Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa said that when people call the 2-1-1 housing crisis line searching for beds, there can be a waiting list over one hundred people long. Walking through downtown after sundown, one is likely to spot more than one person sleeping on benches on the New Haven Green or nearby sidewalks.
“[Homelessness in New Haven] is dire, very dire,” said Karen DuBois-Walton ’89, president of Elm City Communities, the housing authority of New Haven.
In the twenty-two months that have passed since that Point-In-Time count, the COVID-19 pandemic has raged, and the number of housing insecure individuals has notably increased even as funding for housing security has not. The Politic spoke with city officials, experts, non-profit organizers and even a team of housing program leaders from Utah to better understand the barriers preventing these people like Alvin, this 0.4% of New Haven residents, from finding a home a long time ago.
While Alvin struggles to keep a steady roof over his head, at the heart of New Haven, Yale University continues to amass its wealth. In October, the University announced a 40.2% investment return, increasing the endowment by $11 billion in just one year. It now stands at $42.3 billion, 24% of which is not tied to a specific fund and therefore available for general purposes. But the University has historically paid the city of New Haven a voluntary payment of about $13 million — only 0.13% of the $10 billion it has available in general funds.
Right now, Yale has the resources to house New Haven’s entire homeless population more than 100 times over, according to city officials. Right now, this city’s most vulnerable population is waiting for something to change.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker has called for Yale to pay its fair share since even before his election. One of his biggest campaign goals was to get Yale to increase its giving to $50 million, which has yet to happen. As the city faced a daunting budget crisis over the last year, his demands on the University have increased in intensity.
“I’m calling you to do your part,” Elicker said in a press conference last year. “This is the town that you are succeeding in. This is the town that you, Yale University, have an ethical responsibility to contribute to — to ensure that our residents have the resources they need.”
Looking beyond Yale and New Haven, homelessness and housing insecurity have proven to be consistent and dismaying issues in Connecticut’s history. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 4,316 people facing homelessness in the state in 2010. Eleven years later, there were still nearly 2,600 people experiencing this insecurity the night of the 2021 Point-In-Time count, including over 400 children. Of that total number, 429 were “unsheltered,” meaning in just one night of the year, the equivalent of the entire population of Jonathan Edwards residential college was living and sleeping on the streets.
So while homelessness overall has been declining somewhat steadily in recent memory, this data still demonstrates that roughly one in every one thousand people in Connecticut has been homeless throughout the 2000s.
Ward 26 Alder Darryl Brackeen Jr. chairs the Health and Human Service Committee, and therefore oversees approvals of all funding going out to New Haven’s Office of Homelessness and other homeless services. Confronted with the current numbers, Brackeen Jr. described himself as a “fierce advocate” for the city’s homeless population and said that those in the offices he oversees are doing all they can to make the needs of the homeless known to the larger city government.
“I actually do believe [homelessness] is one of the highest [priorities for the city], probably in the top ten of high priority issues, for sure,” Brackeen Jr. said.
New Haven’s plan to address homelessness is one page long.
This April, the New Haven Homeless Advisory Commission drew up this five-year plan, spearheaded by the city’s Coordinator for Homelessness Velma George, to address homelessness. It would look to “transform” the way the city deals with these issues, with the ultimate goal of creating 550 new housing units by the end of five years. The proposal also suggests creating fifty additional emergency beds, increasing outreach capacity, and creating more “service hubs” in the city to make it easier for someone like Alvin to connect with the right resources.
However, the plan leaves in question the specific funding sources for these efforts. The only concrete measure provided is an allocation of $1.2 million from the city that would be distributed to local homelessness organizations and shelters like Columbus House and New Reach for rapid rehousing, as opposed to permanent housing. The funding for the two permanent housing initiatives — buying out a hotel with 112 units along with the construction of several small, fifty-unit communities throughout the city — remains uncertain.
Coordinator George did not respond to a request for comment on the proposal.
The plan’s architects hope this funding will come from New Haven’s new money from the American Rescue Plan. The national relief bill has left the city with a $90 million influx, which has launched a slew of debates as to how to best spend this money. In August, Elicker’s office stated at a public event that the funds would be used to specifically target wealth inequality and racial injustice. In September, Elicker’s office announced that $12 million of these funds would go towards bolstering the New Haven police, including $3.8 million for new cameras, $3.5 million for a new dispatch system, and nearly $1 million for police overtime.
In New Haven, the idea of homelessness as a “top ten priority” runs counter to the experience of DuBois-Walton at the housing authority, who said she has yet to hear any word on how this money might go towards housing programs. DuBois-Walton added that while public safety is undoubtedly important, this prioritization of police is a narrow and unsustainable approach to public well-being, indicative of a biased mindset within city government.
“I am concerned because I think too much of our public policy really prioritizes the needs of those who already have wealth,” DuBois-Walton said. “We have just decided to invest in a military-industrial complex instead of people. That’s the mindset that is guiding public policy.”
Bouncing between places in New Haven for years, Alvin sees this “top ten priority” playing out in the city in his day-to-day life. Every day, he witnesses people preparing to spend their nights outside, in the streets. And every day, whenever someone does anything wrong, he said a cop will be there 24/7, 365 days a year.
He wondered why there can’t be something that effective for people to get a home or a job.
“If you throw a rock at somebody’s car, I bet you fifteen minutes later [the police] are showing up,” Alvin said. “But people can walk around for months and months without having a place to live? Hundreds of people. And when you put it in that perspective, it’s really, really sad.”
Not only does the city allocate comparatively less funding for homelessness, the housing initiatives that the city actually pursues toward this “top ten priority” rarely benefit the homeless and housing insecure population, according to Dubois-Walton. Rather than pushing large-scale affordable housing developments, DuBois-Walton said the city has primarily focused on market-rate developments that many long-time residents would be unable to afford. Last year saw the development of the massive Whit complex in Wooster Square, and the Board of Alders just recently approved another large market-rate development on Long Wharf.
As for affordable housing initiative, DuBois-Walton pointed out that they have not reached the same scale in the Elm City, and said additional cause for concern comes from New Haven’s frighteningly low vacancy rate (the percent of housing available to purchase) of 2.7%, as well as the city’s placement in the bottom thirty U.S. cities in terms of housing affordability according to a recent study.
“We need to be prioritizing what kind of city we want to be and how we want to have more mixed-income neighborhoods,” DuBois-Walton said.
But while New Haven struggles to navigate homelessness and housing insecurity, other U.S. cities are modeling the possibility of productive resolutions.
Despite the barrier of video chat, the orange-red curls framing Salt Lake City’s Homeless Engagement and Response Team Project Manager Michelle Hoon shone vibrantly through the screen. She spoke with the clear, measured tone of someone who has addressed these issues for over fifteen years. The quiet pride in her voice did not seem unearned, as her home turf in Utah’s capital has not only made some of the biggest strides of any city in the nation towards creating effective responses to deal with homelessness, but also cultivated a deep-rooted philosophy that distinguishes those experiencing homelessness from their circumstances.
“Homelessness is legitimately very different than what people perceive it as,” Hoon said. “They think that it’s like the dude on the corner who is screaming at the sky. But really, it is just an experience that people have. It is a condition that they end up in. It is not a defining feature of their life.”
In many ways, the numbers speak for themselves. In 2005, Utah reported over 2,000 people experiencing chronic homelessness, referring to those who have been without shelter for over a year on top of having some sort of “disabling condition,” such as a mental or physical disability or substance abuse problems. That same year, Hoon said the state launched an ambitious ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness. By 2015, the number had fallen to well below 200 people, or a 91% drop in the overall rate.
Hoon, as well as Salt Lake City’s Homeless Strategies Coordinator Dillon Hase, heavily attributed this success to the statewide adoption of the “housing first” strategy — matching homeless, especially chronically homeless, individuals with a home first and foremost. A place to call their own. Through this strategy, over 1,100 new permanent supportive housing units, which offer on-site resources for new residents dealing with larger issues, were built within ten years. This approach nearly doubled the number of units in the entire state.
“Ultimately, housing is the solution to homelessness, and we know that,” Hase said. “Whatever barriers someone might have, they are going to be better equipped to address those issues once they have the baseline stability of housing. That’s why housing first works.”
Several current city leaders in New Haven do not buy into this approach. Brackeen Jr., who again directly oversees the way city funds are distributed to New Haven homelessness agencies, said he did not completely subscribe to the housing-first philosophy, emphasizing that growing the city’s mental health services will greatly benefit the homeless population.
He also said that in a city of such limited funds, there’s only so much that can be done.
“Right now, I’m a strong believer in focusing on immediate relief,” Brackeen Jr. said.
Alder Festa, who chairs the City Services Committee, largely echoed Brackeen Jr.’s mentality, saying there are many different reasons why propping up permanent housing first might not be as effective as people think. One common problem she has noticed is that the affordable housing that does pop up is too far from many residents’ jobs or schools, racking up potentially unaffordable travel costs. She said if the city spent its money ideally, the focus would be on more emergency beds, mental health programs, and substance abuse prevention programs.
Festa also suggested that there are people in New Haven who simply choose to remain homeless, despite the “amazing resources” offered by the city. She claimed she has noticed a trend of people deciding they want to sleep in the streets. She even expressed doubt that if the city were to “throw money at a homeless person” they would actually use it to try and find housing. For a city like New Haven, she said, there’s ultimately no realistic way officials would be able to truly attempt to end homelessness.
“It’s no different than a drug addict,” Festa said. “I hate to compare it to that. But sometimes they have to reach rock bottom and be almost close to death in order for them to realize ‘I have a problem.’ ‘I’m sick and I need help.’”
Festa neglected to bring up any city data as part of her analysis. On the other hand, both Hoon and Hase were emphatic in stating that across America, the issue of homelessness is highly stigmatized and disproportionately conflated with mental health issues or drug problems. Hase said that 21% of the U.S. population has experienced mental illness, but 21% of Americans are not homeless. He said over 10% of U.S. adults have experience with substance abuse, but 10% of Americans are not homeless.
With this stigma in mind, Alvin recalled being so desperate that he would fake “certain things” like mental illnesses at hospitals in New Haven, Bridgeport, even all the way in Hartford, just on the chance they might be able to offer a place to stay. At the very least, he thought he might be able to get new information about potential housing.
“These people are not homeless because they have an addiction problem or a mental illness,” Hase said. “There are plenty of people that have either one or both of those conditions that are stably housed. They are homeless because they don’t have a house that they can afford. Like, that’s it.”
In an effort to avoid oversimplifying their work, Hoon stressed that Salt Lake City’s housing task forces acknowledge that such factors as mental illness and substance abuse can influence a person’s experience with homelessness and aim to account for these as well. Their housing-first approach does not mean “housing only.”
She did, however, express disappointment that state-wide attention has shifted back to short-term, non-permanent housing solutions in light of the increased homeless population thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the last few years, we’ve definitely had to shift focus to more of the emergency side of things and less of the housing side of things,” Hoon said. “I think that’s really regrettable actually, because when we have been performing the best is when we had lots and lots of housing units that were coming online.”
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic is just one of many systemic problems that reveal that homelessness extends well outside city lines. From her perspective within the New Haven housing authority, DuBois-Walton said the persistence of homelessness should hardly come as a surprise given wages in Connecticut, and the nation in general, are not keeping up with the housing market.
While she was appreciative of the progress toward a $15 per hour minimum wage in Connecticut, she said this means little considering that housing costs have progressed with rates of inflation, while wages have not. Connecticut’s “housing wage,” or the wage at which most people can pay a typical rent in the state, is currently upwards of $25 an hour. Hoon believes that this gap will only worsen, causing more and more people to become trapped working multiple minimum wage jobs just to keep a roof over their heads.
“I want to see us as a community stop thinking about a minimum wage and start to think about a housing wage,” DuBois-Walton said. “I think we need to start thinking about how we value work and what we think is a reasonable wage to pay.”
However, even when they can afford rent prices, DuBois-Walton said, the woes for low-income laborers do not end. Through her work, she has seen the ways many landlords intentionally discriminate against low-income renters, either due to concern they won’t be able to pay rent, or because people earning more money are therefore able to pay more for an apartment. In light of this, even the federal housing vouchers meant to assist low-income workers with rent worries are insufficient to meet the prices landlords continue to drive up, she said.
Beyond the tangible impacts of this systemic discrimination, DuBois-Walton said the leniency accorded to wealth and the scorn to poverty in America would need to fundamentally change in order to address homelessness on a deeper level. She asserted it is this attitude shared by many Americans that facilitates the tax avoidance of billionaire Jeff Bezos and the Nike corporation. It allows a massive institution like Yale to go without paying taxes despite owning over 40% of the real estate in New Haven, while the most vulnerable struggle on its outskirts as victims of a system not designed for their success.
“We assign a lot of personal characteristics and shortcomings on people if they’re in poverty as opposed to being able to see the systemic structures that are in place,” DuBois-Walton said. “We’re in a country of tremendous resource, but as a country, we make it very, very hard to be poor.”
Alvin remembered the complex and seemingly endless paperwork thrown his way during his efforts to become housing-secure. As ever, obstacles abounded: Alvin was provided incorrect phone numbers and deadline dates as recently as this summer. He emphatically agreed with DuBois-Walton that everything seems harder than it needs to be.
Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies Elijah Anderson, who teaches a course called “Inequality, Race and the City” at Yale, said this kind of rental discrimination disproportionately affects Black residents facing housing insecurity or homelessness. In the state of Connecticut, Black people make up well over 30% of the homeless population, despite only representing around 10% of the population overall. In addition, 30% of all Black people in New Haven are living in poverty, compared to 20% of white people, according to World Population Review.
Anderson highlighted two racialized trends that particularly contribute to the higher rates of Black homelessness he has found in his urban studies work. The first is that as new, wealthier people move into New Haven, white landlords will tend to send current low-income Black residents packing to make room for white residents who can afford to pay more, even if the original residents were successfully paying their rent. The second is that, especially for poor Black residents, it becomes necessary to find a steady job with a workplace that is “receptive to people who look like them,” — and many are not.
“You know, it’s tough out there,” Anderson said. “Poor Black people face persistent discrimination. Anti-Black racism is a serious problem, and so quite naturally you run into problems of housing if you’re Black and poor. I think a lot of people don’t appreciate that this is what’s happening in the inner city, poor community.”
Because of this, Anderson said the solutions to homelessness will have to be tied to the solutions for systemic racism in this country.
Both Anderson and DuBois-Walton, who is also Black, advocated for some form of a universal basic income, or at the very least, a universal housing subsidy. This essentially means that, no matter what, everyone occupying a given community has to get paid above a certain amount annually. They said this could help ensure that even when faced with systemic and racialized obstacles that make it more difficult for Black people to find homes, there is a safety net in place.
“As a nation, we have the capabilities to greatly alleviate human suffering in our cities, and a guaranteed annual income may be one way [to do that],” Anderson said.
For Hoon and Hase, despite the success of their home city, ultimately the discussion about “ending” homelessness in a meaningfully permanent way needs to be a national one.
There is no way someone can travel from Salt Lake City, UT, to Washington, D.C., to New Haven, CT, see all the same trends, and not recognize the homelessness phenomenon as a federal issue, Hoon said. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are over 580,000 people experiencing homelessness in America today, and Hoon said the only institution with the resources to deal with such a crisis is the federal government. According to Hase, Salt Lake City found that as their homelessness services expanded, more people from nearby municipalities began to flock there in search of relief, so without a nationwide effort, the cities making important progress will continue facing the burden of those that aren’t.
“If it was just a city solution and cities could solve it on their own, a city would have solved it by now,” Hase said.
With deep-rooted national problems, harshly conflicting mindsets, and a city government that is either unable or unwilling to expand funding for homelessness services, the prospect of even beginning to deal with the issue in New Haven seems at best, daunting, and at worst, totally unattainable. And yet, city leaders continue to ask themselves and their communities what their offices could do if unburdened by the constant and frustrating restriction of funding.
It is by no means impossible to imagine how an influx of funds might arrive in the hands of the city’s homelessness services. Thanks to the American Rescue Plan there would be more than enough funds to, for example, send $13 million to the city’s offices of homelessness, a sum equal to Yale’s current voluntary giving to New Haven. For comparison, the city allocated $1.4 million to homelessness services in the most recent fiscal year. Since the city is spending almost three times that amount this year on police cameras, it is certainly possible to imagine a larger sum of money rerouted towards homelessness, though current prospects are unrealistic.
The other major route to funding is, of course, Yale University, which announced in November its plans to increase its voluntary contribution by $10 million for the next 5 years. But this increase is still a minute fraction of its total giving capabilities.
Doubling their voluntary payment from this year to send an additional $13 million towards only homelessness operations would equate to a $26 million payment or 0.26% of the one-fourth of the endowment reserved for general funds. With an increase in giving to just 1% of this one-fourth, the city could take out the $13 million for homelessness services and still have $87 million the city could spend in other areas. According to multiple city leaders, this funding is not only readily attainable but also its lack is the singular biggest reason why more progress has not been made on this issue.
“I know for a fact that funding has been the biggest hurdle towards implementing most of our plans in their full capacity,” Brackeen Jr. said. “Money is definitely our biggest problem.”
If $13 million suddenly appeared in the account for homelessness operations, Brackeen Jr. said he would use it to not only fully fund George’s five-year plan, but expand it to include even more housing units than currently intended. The plan already would include the construction of more units than homeless residents at the time of the last Point-In-Time count. But with these excess funds, he said the city could expand outreach and resource hub initiatives even further, in addition to being able to fully fund another plan that would repurpose two decommissioned New Haven schools into a system of permanent supportive housing with over 100 beds and a 24-hour staff. All for just 0.13% of one-fourth of Yale’s endowment.
Over at Youth Continuum on Grand Avenue, the central outlet for youth homelessness services, Director of Housing Operations Tim Maguire said that with an extra $13 million, homelessness services in the city could make great strides. That figure is nearly three times Youth Continuum’s operating budget of roughly $5 million. He said those funds could primarily finance the creation of as many new “deeply affordable” housing units as possible under a “housing-first” model, in addition to dramatically expanding both employment and clinical services.
All for just 0.13% of one-fourth of Yale’s endowment.
Were $13 million in additional funds to come under her supervision, DuBois-Walton said she would work to quickly create 1,000 new permanent supportive housing units exclusively for the housing insecure population, which is more than double the number of homeless individuals counted in downtown New Haven in 2020. Actually, she said she could do it for even less: $12 million.
However, her goals were even more ambitious. She said with $200 million, her office would fund the housing subsidy program for every single low-income individual and family in New Haven, meaning all residents would have the money needed to find a home in the city. Every single person. All for just over 2% of one-fourth of Yale’s endowment.
“We need funds,” DuBois-Walton said. “But it’s not that these funds are something we don’t have. It’s that these funds are connected to our value system. It’s about choices now.”
While New Haven debates over less than $2 million, in Salt Lake City, they are currently spending $15 million annually just on their homelessness operations. In cities of comparable size — Salt Lake City houses about 60,000 more people than New Haven’s 130,000 — Salt Lake City spends greater than ten times more annually on homelessness than the city where Brackeen Jr. says it’s a “top ten priority.”
Hoon and Hase attributed successful funding not just to their tax base, but to a coordinated effort with state and local non-profit organizations that ensured their local offices got a large share when the COVID-19 relief bill came along. They both stressed that consistent, sizable funding is such a pivotal element to these issues; continuing to be able to turn to the larger community around them is nothing short of essential.
For New Haven, Hoon and Hase believe that an institution like Yale’s willingness to collaborate with its own community will likely be the deciding factor between progress and the continuation of an already dehumanizing crisis.
“[Homelessness] is not a problem cities are really built to solve on their own,” Hoon said. “But there is enough funding out there. If you have the political will and are able to work with the government or non-profit partners you may have, then you will open up much greater funding sources than those from the city itself.”
At about ten minutes before 5 p.m., back within the noisy and clean walls of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen’s Drop-In Center, Alvin stood up, pushed in the small, lightly-colored chair, and began gathering his belongings into that faded camouflage backpack. As he did so, his voice filled the rapidly emptying space, continuing to speak ardently about the issue that has shaped his life for over twenty years. It was only when he reached the door that he wrapped up and said goodbye with a warm handshake. Then, he left, the cheery woman from behind the coffee stand holding the door for him as he headed out to wait for the bus that would take him to his next meal.
Alvin and the countless others facing homelessness are used to waiting. Waiting for their government to start giving them enough attention. Waiting for the leaders at a place like Yale to wake up one morning and use their unparalleled wealth to help the people sleeping in their backyard. Waiting for the right people to start caring enough to stop all the talk. To do something real.
“I don’t just need people to talk to,” Alvin said, arms becoming more animated as he spoke. “I got billions of people to talk to. It’s not about conversation or communication. I’m trying to get some tangible things going on in my life. So everybody can do the song and dance and a hug and a handshake, but then they won’t provide you with the raw materials you need to take it to the next level. And I’m just not dealing with that anymore.”
*Alvin requested that his last name not be used for this story.