The black Nissan Maxima that Jaime Guezara shares with her husband has just enough room-with their clothes and bedding piled in the back-for the two of them to lay down in the vehicle’s reclining front seats to sleep at night.
She refrigerates their food items in a container the size of a lunch box and wakes up at 6 a.m. every day to drop her husband off at work. Then she bathes over a sink in a McDonald’s restroom.
“I take a bird bath,” Guezara says. “Wash my hair, brush my teeth.”
She considers herself lucky.
“I have a vehicle that I can be safe in and I have my husband, but there are plenty of single women with no vehicle and no place to go,” Guezara says from the breakfast table at the Amistad Catholic Worker house on Rosette Street in The Hill neighborhood of New Haven.
During the summer this was the organizing hub for those with no place to go, and community activists pressing City Hall for long term solutions for New Haven’s homeless population, but even if some of Amistad’s demands-more beds and the removal of the 90 day in/out policy at the Immanuel Baptist Shelter on Grand Avenue in Fair Haven and an extended period of operation for the Columbus House’s overflow facility that recently opened again-were met today, Guezara would remain exactly where she is now and has been for the past 2 months. Both Immanel Baptist and the Columbus House overflow facility are for men only.
“There’s very little help for homeless women in New Haven,” she says. “I’ve been sleeping in my car for two months because there’s no help for women.”
There’s some help, but Guezara will have to wait in order to access it. We spoke on October 30-A couple of months after her time at Columbus House’s womens’ shelter expired. On November 14 she filled out an application for one of its beds-60 for the nonemergency facility, 22 that are emergency, and between 20 and 25 “length of stay” spots that charge $90 per month for an extended period-but that will only get her as far as being placed on the waiting list, which can vary in length.
“It could be immediately, or it could be three months,” Guezara said. “It depends on if there’s a bed available and where you are on the waiting list.”
The last time she got into Columbus House, she was called two days after she applied, but with the weather getting colder, Guezara doesn’t expect it to be that easy this time.
“I’ve even gone there to ask if I can do the referral now so I’m on there, and they said no,” Guezara says. “By then, there will be a bunch more people, so who knows how much longer after November 14 I’m gonna have to wait.”
Data regarding homelessness in New Haven in general is typically gathered through annual point-in-time counts, and women are not categorized specifically in those reports, but if Guezara’s search for shelter beds not only in the city but in the surrounding area is any indication, there is a demand that exceeds supply.
“They even know me by my voice,” Guezara says of the shelters-which include facilities in Stratford and Bethel-she has been reaching out to on a daily basis. “That’s how many times I’ve called.”
And every time it has been the same story: the shelter is full.
Excluding Christian Community Action, which provides rooms for families, Martha’s Place is New Haven’s only women’s shelter besides Columbus House.
“We get requests on a daily basis,” says Kara Capone, the Chief Operations Officer for Martha’s Place, over the phone.
How many can vary.
“Sometimes it skyrockets to over 30,” she says. “It depends on the time of year.”
On October 30, the day of our conversation, they got 18 calls from families looking for shelter. Martha’s Place has 33 beds designated for that, and 18 specifically for single women, according to Capone.
“We actually see an increase for families in the summer, because parents need new addresses for their kids going [back] to school,” Capone says.
Other spike periods occur throughout the winter-particularly after the holidays, she says.
“I think people are more willing to keep their families during the holidays, or landlords are willing to look the other way,” Capone says.
A point-in-time count conducted this year by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness found that in New Haven-home to the state’s third largest homeless population-61 percent of the 566 individuals surveyed were single adults, while 17 percent were adults in families. The study, however, was limited to those in emergency shelters or transitional housing, so the segment of the homeless population unable to obtain those services was not accounted for.
The state is looking to make the process of trying to find beds, at least, easier. By December all shelter inquiries will be channeled through a single United Way 211 line, so that people looking for a place to stay don’t have to call multiple shelters.
“So if you’re a women with kids you can call 211,” Capone says. “Same thing if you’re a single man. They have live data to show where there are beds.”
It might be more convenient, but for individuals like Guezara, it could be a faster way to receive the same bad news: that the city and Greater New Haven area as a whole does not have enough beds to accommodate all of its homeless population.
But long term solutions need to address the underlying drivers of homelessness, not simply function in a reactionary capacity, Capone says.
“As a community we don’t want to build more shelters,” she says. “We want to build more affordable housing, because that’s what solves homelessness.”
In New Haven, a market rate 2-bedroom apartment would require take the income of 2 full time jobs plus part time work for a minimum wage earner, according to the Washington D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Even a renter with average level income-estimated by the Coalition to make $15.75 an hour-would need both a full-time job and a part-time position to be able to afford the same type of housing.
And that’s in a city that has-historically-done better with that relative to other communities throughout the state. The Connecticut Department of Housing requires municipalities to prove that any rejection of an affordable housing development was due to concerns related to public health and safety if less than 10 percent of its apartments fit within this category. New Haven far exceeded the threshold with 33 percent as of 2000, when the city had 17,823 affordable units-the second highest in Connecticut-according to a report from New Haven Housing and Neighborhood Planning.
It was 29 percent-second only to Hartford’s 37.2 percent-as of 2011, but the problem persists. New Haven might have a greater supply, but with that comes a greater demand. That same year, the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness released a statewide count reporting 1 in 6 of Connecticut’s homeless are utilizing New Haven shelter services.
“Affordable housing is a huge issue,” Capone says. “People aren’t making enough to afford housing.”
Guezara considers herself a jack of all trades. She’s done everything from construction and demolition to secretarial work.
“Cleaning houses, painting, landscaping-I have my hands in everything,” Guezara says. “I don’t mind.”
But all of that-at least in the eyes of employers-has not washed her hands of the criminal record that she believes has kept her from finding more gainful full-time work. Guezara got out of prison in 2008 after 4 years served for a drug conviction-an offense that also disqualifies her for Section 8 housing.
“It still shows up,” she says. “A lot of people want background checks. I haven’t been that person for several years, but once you have that stigma, people don’t want to give you a chance.”