Shelter Resident Bounced for Photographing Health Hazards

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               It’s about 3:30 in the afternoon and the crowd that has gathered outside the Immanuel Baptist Homeless Shelter on Grand Avenue doesn’t have too much longer to wait before the doors open at 4 p.m.

                Some have been there since as early as 1 p.m. in order to beat the rush to sign up for one of the shelter’s 75 beds. When they get in, new arrivals-those just starting their 90 day stay-will be directed to one of the shelter’s two case managers, and everyone is required to take a shower.

                But Kenny, who has been in and out of Immanuel Baptist since last year, says that the shelter isn’t exactly a shining example of cleanliness.

                “I caught bed bugs in there last year,” Kenny says. “I caught foot fungus from the showers there too.”

                He’s sitting on the curb along Hamilton Street about 30 yards away from the larger group that has congregated at the front entrance to the building. Kenny’s not his real name-he declined to disclose it and asked that that be a pseudonym, but he’s not shy about the shelter’s conditions. The showers inside leak, causing mold, he tells me.

                “They’re gonna close this shit up one day-watch,” he says.

                Another man, who asked only to be called “Anonymous” seconded Kenny’s concerns about the showers.

                ““Yesterday they were actually clean-first time since I’ve been here and I’ve been here for three weeks,” he says.

                The shelter’s conditions-or at least as they have been described-are a touchy subject for the group waiting outside. Feedback varied-a couple of people actually said that they’re happy with it-but nobody wanted to give out their real name, and that was if they were willing to talk at all.

                One heavyset man with a beard, when asked about the issue, immediately became on edge.

                “I ain’t giving you any information,” he says, walking away. “Someone’s been calling and calling [the shelter] and they’re not happy about it.”

                Another man, who asked to be called Mike, is standing in the street talking to Kenny.

                “A lot of people can’t talk to you about this,” he says.

                “They will throw us out,” Kenny adds.

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                A week later, Rico Jones, another shelter resident, has proven his point. It’s just after 8 p.m. Thursday night and Immanuel Baptist is on lockdown. Two police cruisers are parked outside the building and cops are running in and out, talking to staff members and shelter management. Nobody is allowed on the sidewalk just outside the facility.

                Jones is across Grand Avenue sitting on a black suitcase that contains all of his belongings. In one hand he has receipts-$4 he just paid for a shelter bed tonight and $20 to cover the next five days. Complaints about the conditions inside the facility have been floating around for a while, but it has just been a war of words. Now there’s proof, but Jones lost his spot at Immanuel Baptist to get it.

                “I took some pictures,” Jones says. “Of mold and mildew. Broken tiles. Broken shower heads. Mold and mildew not just in the bathroom area, but in the living area. Black mold is a killer, and these guys in here are breathing this every day.”

                A staff member spotted him snapping the photos and he was reported to a manager, who then threw him out, but Jones still has the pictures.

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                Scrolling through the images on his phone-which is inactive but still functions as a camera-Jones gives members of the media the tour.

                He points to one image, of ceiling insulation.

                “I put insulation in for a living,” Jones says. “That’s open insulation with follicles coming out whenever the air blows.”

                Another photo shows a shower wall.

                “See that stuff on the wall?” he says. “That’s soap scum. That’s what mold comes up out of.”

                Jones says that he was planning to bring the photos to the New Haven Health Department.

                “It’s not just [about] me,” he says. “I know somebody in there who’s on dialysis. I know some people in there who have emphysema-breathing problems.”

                When Jones was sent packing at around 6 p.m., the first person he called was Gregory Williams of the Amistad Catholic Worker. The group’s ‘Where Then, Shall We Go?’ campaign against homelessness-an effort that has included the transformation of a vacant city lot into an encampment-has grabbed headlines since the seasonal closing of the Columbus House overflow shelter. Now another crowd-which totaled about 15 people from Unidad Latina en Accion, Amistad, and the ANSWER Coalition-is forming outside Immanuel Baptist.

                Shelter management, however, is talking to no one-an hour ago Williams tried unsuccessfully to talk speak with staff members before police that he called arrived and martialed he and Jones across the street. Even New Haven City Alderman Aaron Greenberg, who came to the scene at the request of Williams, is getting the cold shoulder.

                Greenberg crossed the street and introduced himself to the staff member at the door as an elected official and asked for his manager’s contact information. After a brief argument, the door was slammed in his face.

                “It doesn’t look like they’re letting anybody else back in,” he says. “I think this might be a fight worth having another day-maybe find him another place to stay.”

                That’s taken care of, although Jones declined to specify what his plans are for the night. And on another day, and every day after, he will have the same problem: where to go now that he no longer has a shelter bed? His eviction from Immanuel Baptist, is permanent. A police officer crossed the street shortly after cops spoke with staff members and informed him that the shelter has banned him.

                “Forever,” Jones tells Williams and a couple of other supporters as the officer walks away.

                But one of the first police officers to show up had told him that an eviction needs to go through a judge in order to be lawful. Then the story changed. Jones was on private property, and can be arrested for trespassing if the owner asks him to leave and he refuses, police said.

                In fact, as far as the cops are concerned, everyone at the impromptu protest-including reporters-is fair game for arrest if they set foot on the shelter property, an officer tells the group.

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                It’s past 9 p.m. and Williams is calling everyone to the drawing board. There’s one thing they haven’t tried, and that’s leveraging Mayor Toni Harp-who made the call to get Jones a bed at Immanuel Baptist despite the expiration of his 90 days when the group held meetings with her following the city’s dismantling of their encampment-but City Hall is closed, so Williams suggests making a house call.

                “It is legal for a few of us to stop by her place, knock on her door, and ask her to talk to us,” Williams says.

                Consensus is reached and about twenty-five minutes later, Jones and Williams, along with Amistad Catholic Worker activists Mark Colville, Alan Elbaum and Abigail Meerson, are standing outside the mayor’s home on Conrad Drive in Westville.

                “What we’re here to do is register a complaint,” Colville tells the group. “I think our presence-”

                He pauses and looks at Rico.

                “Your presence, sends the message,” Colville says.

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                But the group will have to send their message to the mayor in a hand-delivered memo. Williams and Jones both knock and get no answer, so they leave a note on behalf of Amistad, requesting that Harp act in order reverse Immanuel Baptist’s move to ban Jones.

                The fight would be one for another day, and Amistad wasted no time in continuing it the next. It’s a little after 4 p.m. Friday. According to The New Haven Independent, Harp is at a conference in Texas, so Rico, Williams, and Elbaum are sitting at a small table in the lobby of the Livable City Initiative (LCI) office at City Hall with Executive Director Erik Johnson.

                They’re still here to continue advocating for the restoration of Jones’ shelter bed, but the situation has become more complicated. The New Haven Independent has just released its coverage of the night’s events-photos included-so the city has some investigating of its own to do, Johnson tells them.

                “Understand the domino effect that this can have if all of this is true, and the city is forced to take aggressive action,” Johnson says.

                Amistad and activists within the homeless community have been pushing for the city to take action-mainly in the form of a new contract that will ensure cleaner conditions within the shelter. The Community Services Administration and the Office of Corporation Counsel are in the middle of those discussions now, says Laurence Grotheer, the Director of Communications in the mayor’s office.

                Harp told Amistad in a meeting following the clearing of their encampment that improving the shelter would be a priority when the city goes to renew its agreement with Immanuel Baptist, but now the group fears that if too many pieces fall, the facility may not make it that far. An update from the Catholic Worker Facebook page that went out that morning alleged that Johnson expressed intentions to close the shelter if the Independent’s article ran. Williams says he learned that from Greenberg, who could not be reached for comment on Friday night.

                “I haven’t talked to Mr. Greenberg,” Johnson says to the group after Williams brings it up. “I have not seen any photos.”

                It could happen, but not before an investigation, and news coverage like the one in the Independent and/or a formal complaint can prompt the city to go through that process, he says.

                “Okay, then I would like to file a formal complaint,” Jones says.

                He will do that on Monday following a 9:30 a.m. press conference outside City Hall, the group decides later.

                “We will not respond to this intimidation,” Williams wrote in an update on Amistad’s Facebook page. “If the shelter is closed without an alternative being given, we will take nonviolent direct action.”

                They already have plans for one in the works. Last week Catholic Worker announced intentions to set up another homeless encampment on city property, only they have not specified which one. That action has been scheduled for July 24.

                “The city still has not answered the question of, ‘where then, shall we go?’” Williams says back at the Amistad House on Rosette Street.

                And if the plug is pulled on Immanuel Baptist, 75 more will be asking that same question, but that should not allow service providers to get away with health hazards, Williams says.

                “People shouldn’t have to choose between shelter and clean conditions,” he says.

               

               

               

               

               

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