It’s around 3 p.m. and the mood at the press conference outside Mayor Toni Harp’s office in New Haven City Hall is upbeat.
Leigh Shields-Church, a team leader for the 100 day program-a collective effort by a coalition of nonprofits to end “chronic homelessness” in a 100 day period-has just announced that 39 individuals have been placed in supportive housing units since the June 1 launch of the initiative. That is out of a list of 86 people that have been “matched” for a spot in supportive housing. It’s not the 107-75 percent of the 142 chronically homeless individuals counted in New Haven-set as the campaign’s initial target, but Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Lisa Bates is optimistic.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to end homelessness tomorrow, as I’m sure everyone I this room would like us to do,” Bates tells the packed rotunda. “That’s what we would like to do, but that’s not how it’s going to work. It’s going to be a longer effort, and the good news is this group of leaders is on that path.”
But there’s an elephant in the room, and it’s standing right behind the wall of reporters between Mayor Harp’s podium and the crowd that has gathered to listen to the press conference.
Rico Jones, who is known for speaking his mind-and backing it up, as the photos of mold that has accumulated in the showers and sleeping areas of the Grand Avenue homeless shelter mold have shown-is silent. He doesn’t need to speak because the sign he’s holding does it for him.
“One hundred days later, still homeless,” it reads.
Jones is accompanied by a group from Amistad Catholic Worker, which has been doing its own brand of anti-homelessness campaigning. That effort has taken shape-for a second time-in the seizing of a city owned property for use as a homeless safe haven. Last night 20 homeless people slept there.
Mayor Harp is wrapping things up, but for the first time at the press conference, the subject of the encampment is raised.
“Is there any problem with people staying there until they get [housing]?” asks one reporter. “Can they work with all these agencies while they’re staying there?”
“We’ve gotten any number of complaints from people saying it isn’t sanitary there,” Harp tells her. “The neighborhood is asking that we do something about it.”
Twenty minutes later, the group from Amistad Catholic Worker is driving along Union Avenue when activist Abigail Emerson gets a text from Mark Colville, who is manning the encampment at 634 Howard Avenue.
“LCI [Livable Cities Initiative] trucks have pulled up,” Emerson reads aloud. “Where are you?”
That means the city is moving in to dismantle the camp. Harp hasn’t wasted any time.
Greg Williams, another member of the group, has prepared himself for this.
“Time to go to jail,” he says under his breath.
When Assistant Police Chief Luiz Casanova walks into the lot, dinner is being served as two LCI workers wait in a truck across the street.
“Rice and beans?” Casanova says with a grin.
Williams, who is sitting under a canopy in a chair holding a sign that reads, “If the city can’t do it, the community will”, is all smiles.
“Want some?” he asks the officer.
Jones, who is also planning on leaving the lot in handcuffs, sits in a chair next to him.
“This is from the neighbors that were complaining,” he tells Casanova.
Shacara Mcinnis is leaning against the fence that separates the encampment from her driveway, watching the scene play out. Yesterday, after the group cleared the lot of trash and debris and mowed the lawn, she gave them her WiFi password.
“They weren’t doing anything wrong,” Mcinnis tells reporters. “Friendliest neighbors in the neighborhood. It’s wrong to throw homeless people out. If they’re not bothering anybody else it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Johnny Kane sits on the steps outside the other house that neighbors the lot with two of his friends-residents that he is staying with for a few days. Nobody there has a problem with the encampment either, Kane says.
“They did a good deed,” he says. “It looked like a junkyard.”
So where are the complaints coming from?
When Amistad arrived at the lot yesterday, Abdul Shehadeh, a Howard Avenue resident who lives a couple of houses down from the lot, called the police almost immediately citing concerns about the potential for public urination and defecation, as well as safety-a concern the group has addressed by shuttling people over to their headquarters on Rosette Street to use the restroom.
Shehadeh’s complaints initially prompted second thoughts about having the encampment at that location, but the group decided to give it 24 hours and have since then reported positive feedback from other neighbors.
Back inside the camp, the tone has become more serious.
“We’re here to ask you to vacate the premises,” Casanova tells the group.
“It’s public land,” Colville says. “There are desperate people here who have no place to stay, and anywhere they decide to stay is illegal.”
For Jones, the shelter at Grand Avenue was added to that list when he was caught photographing the conditions inside. For that, he has received a lifetime ban from the facility. Columbus House is referral only, and the organization’s overflow shelter has been closed for the season.
For those who are still allowed inside Grand Avenue, the regular battle is for 75 beds-a number Amistad has been urging the city to increase on a more permanent basis, but Harp has told them that it’s infeasible from a budgetary standpoint.
The city sent a social worker to refer the camp’s homeless to open shelter beds yesterday, Harp said at the press conference, but an outreach worker from Columbus House who accompanied Casanova but would not disclose her name said that the only facility with spots for men was Grand Avenue.
“Would you rather me sleep on the green or the waterfront?” Jones asks Casanova.
Colville knows where he’s sleeping-through the eviction, anyway. Backup officers have arrived and the group is taking down the tents and hauling bundles of sleeping bags off the property.
“Greg!” Colville shouts from the back of the campsite. “If you need me, I’ll be taking a nap.”
One of two large tents is all that will remain. Colville has literally laid down inside with Williams and Jones in chairs and holding signs outside. That’s where they’ll be when the officers come to escort them off the property. They’ll be charged with trespassing.
“Don’t hurt him!” Mcinnis shouts to the officers carrying Williams out of the lot by his arms and legs.
“Where then…!” Williams shouts.
His fellow activists finish the chant.
“Shall we go!” they yell back.
This continues until he’s in the police van, but activists with Amistad would tell you that the question has been echoing longer than that.
“A policy change is what is needed,” Colville said earlier. “Apartments are not affordable. Low income apartments are being systematically withdrawn from this city. Until that policy changes, all the social work in the world is not gonna solve this problem.”