Les sits across the table from me at a Burger King on Whalley Avenue.
His 54-year old face looks tired through his glasses and short cropped facial hair, but living outdoors in the Connecticut winter-which has at recent points reached below freezing temperatures-will do that to a person.
“I say a prayer in the morning,” Les says. “Get through the day by panhandling for money. Try to get something to drink so the cold don’t bother me so much.”
These days one would figure the cold would be more than bothersome-the city of New Haven, as well as the rest of the state and most of the northeast-has just gotten through another snow storm, and more is expected later that week. When weather conditions reach their worst, the city institutes a no-freeze policy at the shelters, meaning that nobody can be turned away, but Les has been forgone shelter and chosen instead to brave the temperatures and the elements.
Believe it or not, he feels that he is safer in that situation than at one of the city’s three homeless shelters.
“I’ve been beaten up too many times-robbed too many times,” Les says.
That’s how he lost his I.D., food stamp card, and phone, making what has already been a challenging job search that much more difficult.
Les’s situation is not unique, says Kenneth Driffer, who used to work for the Columbus House before he became an independent outreach worker for New Haven’s homeless population.
“You’re dealing with 75 different personalities-75 people struggling with not being housed and the multiple issues that come with it,” Driffer says from a table across from us. “Of course there’s gonna be friction. For some folks that go in there, there’s a safety issue. He’s not the only person who says that.”
Driffer would know-throughout the past few weeks his outreach work has included providing support for those who have opted out of the shelters. When temperatures crept below zero, he was making runs to individuals camping under bridges and abandoned buildings.
“What we try to do is get them to go someplace else,” Driffer said during an earlier interview at Blue State Coffee on Wall Street. “Today I convinced someone to go to their friend’s house. I drove him there. I have some people that never go in. They’re living under bridges and they never go in.”
For Les, the sanctuary-if you can call it that-is a van at an undisclosed location. He has to be sneaky about it though-he usually has to wait until between 11:30 p.m. and midnight to avoid getting caught by the owner of a nearby building.
“The guy on the second floor owns the van,” Les tells me. “The guy on the first floor doesn’t, but he doesn’t want anybody there, so when he sees me he calls the cops.”
Les estimates that he’s tried the shelters around 10 times. He described mattresses with bed bugs and showers that were defecated in. And then, of course, there’s always the harassment from other occupants.
While safety is one concern expressed by many of the individuals Driffer works with, a lot of times it’s more complicated than that.
“It’s hard with people with mental health and addiction problems to stay in,” he says. “They have a policy where once you can’t go back in.”
Back at the Burger King table, Les flashes a small bottle of Dunbar Vodka and discretely puts it into a pocket of his Reebok sweatpants. Alcohol may not be at the root of his problems, but it has exacerbated them. It started when he lost his rigging job in New Hampshire.
“My life just went downhill,” Les says. “I thought of killin myself. It led me to that. My alcoholism got so bad I didn’t care anymore.”
Les became homeless after his then-wife divorced him. He bounced around, spending a four year stint in Bridgeport, and five years in Waterbury. He’s been in New Haven for five years. It was just recently that his luck turned around, though only briefly.
Les’s left foot is covered in bandages-part of a makeshift cast for a broken leg he sustained at the end of January while enrolled in the Salvation Army’s Bridgeport work therapy program. The deal was simple-as long as you put in the hours, you had a place to stay and rehabilitation services-but Les’s injury changed that.
“They pretty much put me back on the street,” Les says. “I’m back to where I started-drinking again.”
He’s trying to get back on track, but his job search is once again hindered by the very circumstance that caused him to lose his last one.
“When you’re homeless you can’t take care of yourself,” Les says. “You have no shower. You have to shit and piss in the dirtiest places. You have no transportation to get to where you gotta go.”