Four years ago Roosevelt Watkins was sleeping in a tent somewhere along the West River in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven.
This time of year, it wouldn’t be as bad, he says. But Watkins and his girlfriend-after moving to the city from South Carolina and having a housing arrangement with a friend fall through-were spending the winter in the Connecticut cold.
“[We had] a lot of layers,” Watkins recalls. “I had a heater that was designed for tents, and a tarp on top of the tents.”
They got by long enough for Watkins to obtain a Section 8 housing voucher. He is no longer homeless, but today he’ll be helping to create a “safe haven”-at a vacant lot on New Haven city property that is being taken over by activists and low income members of the Amistad Catholic Worker and turned into an encampment-for those who are.
He’s sitting on a bundled up sleeping bag against the fence at 634 Howard Avenue. Behind him is the lot that he and his crew of Hill residents are mowed and cleared of trash and debris that was littered all over the parcel. The rest of the crowd-about 30 or so activists that marched with the group from the nearby Amistad Catholic Worker house on Rosette Street-looked on alongside news cameras. For most of them, the location is a surprise-Amistad organizers decided not to disclose the city property they chose after a previous attempt to establish a homeless “safe haven” encampment at a Rosette Street property ended with a quick eviction.
“There was a time when I was [homeless],” Watkins says. “It’s the same question that was then-where then, shall we go? You sleep on a bench and you’re subject to arrest. I know the plight. I lived it.”
Rico Jones is still living that plight. Last month he was thrown out of the Grand Avenue homeless shelter for photographing mold and open insulation in the facility. Now, with a lifetime ban from the property, he faces this question every night.
“I’m still homeless,” Jones says into a boom box microphone at a rally held outside the Amistad house before the march. “The idea is to give people someplace to go. We have people sleeping by the river, in trash containers, under bridges-I’ve slept under bridges.”
Tomorrow afternoon Mayor Toni Harp will be holding a press conference to recap the closing 100-day window for an initiative to end “chronic homelessness” through connecting individuals with permanent supportive housing and other services. The plan aimed to house 107 people-75 percent of those reported in a count that was taken in the early phases of the initiative.
One of the signs that hangs along the fence of the Howard Avenue lot reads “the emergency is tonight.” The results of the 100 day program are yet to be seen, but Amistad has known since the seasonal closure of the Columbus House overflow shelter that people like Jones cannot afford to wait.
“We are doing this action because under the current system-the current order of things-we have nowhere else [for people to] go but toward the place of struggle,” says Amistad Catholic Worker organizer Greg Williams during the pre-march rally. “Nowhere else to go but to confront the powers. Nowhere else to go but an empty lot.”
But before they confront the powers, they’ll be confronted by an angry neighbor. Within minutes after the group descends on the lot, Abdul Shehadeh is pacing outside a neighboring property on his cell phone.
Shehadeh, a resident of the Hill for 25 years who lives a couple of houses over, is calling the police. His reaction, he says, is based on some bad experiences-the lot at 634 Howard Avenue is a hot spot for drug deals.
“I can’t leave my house because I’m afraid that someone will break in,” Shehadeh says. “My wife and kids have to see someone peeing.”
It’s just after 12 p.m. and Williams has called a meeting. Shehadeh’s grievances have prompted some second thoughts. The group is considering packing up the tents and occupying another property.
“Nobody is saying you don’t need a place to stay,” says Barbara Fair, an activist from the organization My Brother’s Keeper. “I’m here for that. I don’t support going into a community that doesn’t want you and saying ‘I’m staying whether you like it or not.’
“The problem is, everyone says they support it, but not here, which brings back the question, where then, shall we go?” Watkins says.
If the group wants to confront power, they might want to try Yale, Fair says.
“Let’s go to the people who have like half the property in the city and demand a safe place to stay,” she says. “Not people who are already broke.”
Part of Amistad’s initiative at the lot is to turn it into a safe place, Jones says.
“The major concerns is that they have problems already,” he says. “They have drug dealers. They’re afraid they’ll get the same thing-urination. Defecation. I’ve been trying to assure them that that won’t happen. To be honest I understand what they’re saying, but I still have no place to go.”
The group has established a no alcohol or drug policy. No weapons are allowed on the property. In fact, a Columbus House social worker that came to the lot escorted by two police officers was kindly asked not to bring them to the camp again-the weapons ban extends to cops. She agreed.
Amistad is taxiing people to their headquarters on Rosette to use the bathroom, and littering is prohibited. They’ve had several opportunities to test the weight of that rule-three meals have been served at the spot already.
“It’s not going to be dirty,” Jones says. “We came here cleaning. We’ll continue to be clean. Give us a chance to try. We’ll police ourselves.”
That’s option B-wait 24 hours in order to gauge the neighbor’s response-and they’re taking it. Since the encounter with Shehahdeh, the activists have not fielded any more complaints. A few residents even expressed support. One woman-from a house right next to the lot-gave the group her WiFi password.
Their confrontations with neighbors might be over, but now the question is when they will have one with, as Williams likes to put it, “power”. That means the city.
“When the large crowd goes away, they will come in and sweep us away like flies,” Jones says. “I don’t think this’ll last, but we’re going to try. Giving up is not an option for me.”
Laurence Grotheer, Communications Director for Mayor Toni Harp’s Office, told The New Haven Register that the encampment violates code regarding “the use of property” and that city personnel will be sent to the site “to enforce code” at some point.
It probably won’t be tonight-a police officer came by earlier and gave members of the group a number they can call should they need anything, an indication that they will not be evicted before the morning.
“We got the first 24 hours,” Jones says.
It’s about 9:30 p.m. and he’s walking through the maze of 9 tents-2 of which he says are big enough to fit 8-10 people-that haven been pitched at the lot.
“We can fit up to 40 people if we have to,” Jones says, beaming. “See how easy it is to house 40 people?”