Church on the Rock Pastor James Roundtree begins Friday night’s meal with a prayer.
The twenty or so people that have congregated inside the Fair Haven church’s cafeteria bow their heads in silence as Roundtree speaks for several minutes, appealing for a spiritual lift for the low income, the unemployed, those with mental health and substance abuse issues-among the other challenges that members of the group of homeless individuals are facing.
In two days, they’ll be facing those obstacles along with one more-finding shelter once the church stops functioning as an overnight warming center.
“Everyone comes with different problems,” says Dawn, a resident of the program, which is an extension of the Columbus House. “The thing we all have in common is that we won’t have a place to go on Monday.”
She’s standing outside the church with the rest of the group. It’s a little after 9 p.m. and when the doors open, they’ll be served a meal of chicken and mashed potatoes-courtesy of the church’s team of volunteer cooks. Everything from gloves and hats to bars of soap sit on a donation table in the back.
After they eat, those staying for the night will find a spot to sleep in.
“This isn’t the ideal place I want to sleep in,” says Brittany Einslie. “But it’s a place to lay my head instead of outside in the cold.”
Ideally, she would have the apartment that she and her boyfriend, Alex, lost when they both became unemployed. After leaving a sober house program, Einslie had nowhere else to turn-a situation she expects to be in again come Monday.
“I don’t have a place to go,” she said. “We’re probably gonna camp somewhere.”
Luckily for them, at least it will be a little bit warmer. Forecasts for the week have temperatures reaching the low 50’s. Nights will probably be high 30’s-not spring weather, but an improvement compared to this winter’s coldest periods.
That’s why the Columbus House is discontinuing its Church on the Rock warming center, says Lawrence Grotheer, spokesperson for Mayor Toni Harp. The initiative was driven by Connecticut’s cold weather emergency protocol.
“Now that we’re at the start of a spring thaw, the cold weather emergency protocol is no longer necessary,” Grotheer said. “The city’s usual homeless shelters remain open. The overflow [shelter] remains open through April.”
But Church on the Rock residents report having difficulties getting into the other shelters. Columbus House is by referral only, and getting one of Immanuel Baptist’s 75 beds-although that number was increased through the worst of the winter-can be a hit or miss scramble, they say. Even the overflow-a branch of Columbus House-has adopted a referral policy.
So on a typical night, anywhere from 50 to 60 people will come to the Church on the Rock. That’s according to Chris Alexander, a resident who is organizing an effort to keep it open.
“As of Monday morning, there will be 50 to 60 people with nowhere to go,” Alexander says.
The petition he started had 482 signatures on it when he hand-delivered it to Mayor Harp’s office on Friday morning. He says he focused his request on the city because a Columbus House staff member told him it’s their call.
But Pastor Roundtree says that it was Columbus House who decided to discontinue the warming center. If that’s the case, that does not mean the city can’t help. Last year Mayor Harp found funding to keep the overflow shelter open for an additional two weeks amid protests that took place right before its seasonal close.
“It’s warm. It’s a safe environment,” Alexander said. “It’s a place for homeless people to get out of the elements.”
And it doesn’t have a 4 p.m. curfew like some of the other facilities in the city. That proved critical for Tommy, a Church on the Rock resident who started sleeping there a month ago.
“I was out [working] until 8, 9’o clock at night,” he says. “I’d get back to New Haven at 10, 11’o clock.”
When the cold became unbearable, he would bus hop until midnight-when they stopped running.
“Other than that I was going to the hospital waiting room, or a Dunkin Donuts,” Tommy says.
He’s sitting at a table across from Dawn and Alexander.
“Anywhere you can go until they get tired of you and kick you out,” Dawn adds.