Activists Claim Vacant Lot as Homeless Safe Haven

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In the ten years that Mike spent homeless, he tried about everything one can think of-and more-in surviving the elements when he could not find a spot at one of New Haven’s shelters.

He’s slept in alleyways, dumpsters, and even under parked cars.

“Sometimes when it’s 20 degrees outside and raining, out of sheer desperation people sleep under a car,” Mike says. “The person comes back and spots you under there, and they can’t drive the car, so you go to jail.”

In all the times he’s tried that, Mike has never been seen or arrested, but he admits that in those conditions, some would have been grateful to spend a night at the police station.

“At that point, you’re just seeking refuge,” he says.

We’re sitting at a table under a canopy in a vacant lot two houses down from the Amistad Catholic Worker House on Rosette Street in the Hill neighborhood. Behind us is an assortment of three tents, and the signs that read, ‘where then, shall we go?’ and ‘housing is a human right’.

This is the space Amistad-in collaboration with members of the New Haven homeless population-have established in response to last week’s closure of the overflow shelter on Howard Avenue.

“This is paradise right now,” Mike says. “If I had to, I could just lay on this table. The weather wouldn’t affect me.”

 

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About six hours ago, paradise was an overgrown lot-city land that’s rented by the New Haven Land Trust-with cement chunks and empty alcohol containers scattered all over the back, where the three tents now stand. The lawn was mowed, the trash and debris was cleared, and camp was set up.

“We’re going to be living here until the mayor [Toni Harp] gives an answer to the question, ‘where will people go?’” says Greg Williams, a Yale Divinity student and activist with the Amistad Catholic Worker.

Or, until the city sends the cops, which happened within hours after a lunchtime press conference. Harp’s office wants the camp dismantled, but the city has yet to issue an official eviction order, so the structures will remain, the group says.

“The city is correct in saying it’s not a permanent solution,” says Mark Colville, also from Amistad Catholic Worker. “It’s an emergency solution. Part of the point is getting the city to acknowledge the emergency and do something about it. We had a homeless emergency two weeks ago and they exacerbated it by closing the shelter.”

The overflow shelter, which closes during the warmer months, got a week-long extension courtesy of $10,000 Harp redirected, but the city is still in search of a plan that goes beyond a quick fix, and activists are not waiting around to see if an initiative to end chronic homelessness in 100 days makes good on its promise. While they hope it succeeds, the community needs to be proactive, Colville and Williams say.

“People have a right to a roof over their heads, and to take refuge together,” Colville said during the press conference. “We’re here to affirm that.”

In a statement quoted in The New Haven Register, Harp’s office pointed to $1 million the city has spent on homeless services in the last year, while urging the group to dismantle the camp and “work with us to develop viable solutions.”

New Haven Land Trust Director Justin Elicker told The New Haven Register that legal authority over the property is in the city’s hands. Although Elicker says the Trust wants to preserve the lot as an open space for community gardening, he expressed the desire to help “facilitate” the process of finding safe places for homeless individuals to stay, according to The New Haven Register.

When Leo Donis and Greg Abraham were living at the “tent city”-occupied by about a dozen homeless individuals before its dismantling by the city-on “the Boulevard”, they would take turns standing watch while the other slept.

“It wasn’t a safe place,” Donis says. “People would get stabbed in there-robbed all the time.”

Tonight, they’ll both sleep while someone else watches their backs-Williams and Colville are taking turns manning the front of the lot. Amistad is not worried about safety-Colville noted that the area looks a lot cleaner than before and says that the intent is to foster a productive community that maintains a space that he says was largely unused, with the exception of drug dealers-but the group has no idea if, or when, the police will come back to evict them.

“If it happens, usually it’s something like 4 a.m. on the first night,” Williams tells me as he takes a drag from a cigarette and prepares himself to take the first shift, which will have him up until midnight.

As for the number of homeless occupants, so far it’s small-only four people-but Williams expects it to grow as “we establish it as a safe space.” Whether or not the camp will be around long enough for that is yet to be seen, but for individuals like Donis, who are accustomed to a lifestyle plagued with uncertainties, it’s just another situation to take day by day.

“We started something today,” Donis said earlier. “Nothing is for sure, but we’ll see what happens.”

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