Out in the Cold

I t’s one of the coldest nights of the winter so far. When I leave my house at 2:50 a.m., the temperature is 13 degrees. My street is so quiet and still that I feel as if I’ve stepped into a vacuum where time, like the ground, is frozen. On my drive through New Haven, I encounter only two other vehicles. One of them, it turns out, is going where I’m going: The Connection at 48 Howe Street, where more than 50 volunteers have assembled for the annual Point-in-Time Count of the city’s homeless population.

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

The national PIT Count takes place in late January for a reason. Someone with housing options might choose to sleep outside in warmer weather rather than impose on friends or deal with a crowded shelter. But on a night like this, those who are outside almost certainly have nowhere else to go. The primary objective of the count is to collect data that will be shared with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to determine where funding for homeless services is most needed in the coming year. The count is not HUD’s only data point, but it’s an important one, says Lisbette De La Cruz, senior manager of outreach and engagement at Columbus House and one of the count organizers.

In a wood-paneled room at The Connection, volunteers sign in and pour themselves cups of hot coffee before huddling with one of 15 teams, each staffed with four or five volunteers. The team I’m assigned to is led by Bryce McKinzie, who works as an employment and income navigator for Liberty Community Services. Because he’s out working on the street every day, he knows his way around downtown and is familiar with the many nooks and crannies where people may be spending the night. Rounding out our team are Kelly Fitzgerald of United Way of Greater New Haven, who directs the Coordinated Access Network that matches people with homes and shelters, and Jim Pettinelli, executive director of Liberty Community Services.

For the purposes of this evening, “homeless” is defined as “staying on the street or in a place not meant for human habitation,” explains Keyonna Naughty, a program director for The Connection and, with De La Cruz, the other New Haven PIT Count organizer. Naughty instructs us to attempt to interview anyone we find who is homeless, sticking strictly to the questions in an app we’ve pre-loaded into our phones. We’re not to wake anyone who’s sleeping. Instead, we can simply log their presence. After her quick orientation, it’s time to pull on hats and gloves and head out into the cold.

At 4:06 a.m., we climb into McKinzie’s car. Our team has been assigned an L-shaped area mostly south and east of the Green: Olive Street, MLK Jr. Boulevard, High Street, Chapel Street, Church Street, Grove Street and all of the smaller streets and alleys in between. On our first of several passes up Church, we see a lone man walking past City Hall. McKinzie pulls to the curb, and Pettinelli rolls down his window. He’s clear and polite each time we approach someone: “Hello. We’re driving around talking to people who might be experiencing homelessness…” When the man agrees to talk, we get out of the car. Pettinelli asks the questions—name, age, gender, how long he’s been without housing, some medical questions—and enters the man’s responses. I give the man a bag containing socks, soap, deodorant and a washcloth. McKinzie offers his business card and encourages the man to call him. Fitzgerald explains where one of the city’s two warming centers is located.

We spend the next two and a half hours combing the streets of the area shaded green in our app. We get out of the car at the State Street train station to check its abandoned platforms and out-of-the-way corners. We walk through parking lots and garages in the light of the car’s headlights and our own flashlights. We peek behind barriers and dumpsters. We step down into streetside stairwells. McKinzie tells us he’s watching for cars with fogged windows, indicating someone is sleeping inside.

Pettinelli finds one man asleep under a blanket, protected by three well-placed trash cans. Another man who’s sitting cross-legged in a doorway on a sheet of cardboard tells us he’s not interested in our survey, and we retreat. Several people we greet tell us they aren’t homeless, though they don’t seem to mind that we’ve asked. The two men we actually interview over the course of the night are both walking the streets to stay warm; we pass one of them three more times.

The city has several shelters along with the two warming centers—one at 678 Winthrop Avenue and one at 660 Winchester Avenue that’s just for women. Pettinelli praises the work being done throughout greater New Haven to keep people sheltered and help them find permanent housing. But the system also has its limits. For one thing, Fitzgerald says, the shelters are currently full, with over 120 males and 60 females on the waiting list. “There’s still just more need than there are resources,” she says. And some people don’t want to go to a shelter or a warming center, Pettinelli says. They may have experienced a past trauma in a similar setting, or they might be avoiding particular people. Typically, you can’t get much, if any, sleep there. And some people simply may not feel safe surrounded by others.

It’s still dark around 5 a.m. when we start seeing people out walking their dogs or heading to work, wearing uniforms and carrying briefcases or lunch boxes. Car traffic is picking up. Around 5:30 a.m. the buses start running, and people begin to congregate at the bus stops. We don’t stop to ask each of them their status, but McKinzie says some people without shelter will spend part of the day riding the bus to stay warm.

I ask the team how they’re feeling. “A little heartbroken” is Fitzgerald’s response. “I mean, all day our work is to align services, be as efficient and effective as possible, and we’re still seeing people who are walking the streets.” In the back seat beside me, she sits up a little straighter. “But I’ll go to work after this and be like, ‘All right, what are we doing next?’”

Back at The Connection, there’s a warm room and a hot breakfast waiting for volunteers. The data we’ve collected won’t be available for weeks, but Naughty says the count ran smoothly. Madeline Ravich, development advisor for the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, which oversees the count statewide, says her team, which was assigned to the area around the Green, interviewed five people. Numbers for the warming centers and shelters will be added in later, along with a separate count of homeless youth continuing throughout the week.

Pettinelli admits it’s unlikely we found everyone on the streets this night. And the data is a mere snapshot. But there’s another purpose in taking on the PIT Count together. “I value the passion of everyone in that room in coming out to be part of this as a volunteer,” he says, “and I think it’s important that we focus on this as a community… So, we’re not only collecting data and information at this point in time, but we’re kind of coming together… to try and respond in the best way we can.”

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features Kelly Fitzgerald, Jim Pettinelli and Bryce McKinzie.

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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