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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Homeless shelters full, school opened to meet demand

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— With homeless shelters over capacity and struggling to meet rising demand for beds, the city opened the Truman School this week as a temporary overflow shelter, the first time the city has opened a school as an overflow shelter.
Thirty-one men slept on cots in the Truman School gymnasium Monday night. Space at the Columbus House shelter on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard and the overflow shelter on Cedar Street was filled, as well as space at the Immanuel Baptist Shelter on Grand Avenue, according to Columbus House Executive Director Alison Cunningham.
“Numbers have been beyond capacity for some time now,” she said. “It’s never been like this.”
On average, about 280 men seek shelter each night at Columbus House and Immanuel’s shelters, Cunningham said. Capacity for the three shelters is 231, but the shelters have a “no freeze” policy that does not turn people away in the winter.
While school is out this week, Truman offers a quick-fix solution, but once students return, there’s no long-term plan to house the city’s burgeoning homeless population. The cots will remain at Truman through Saturday night.
“We don’t want to turn people away. It is school vacation this week, so it’s a temporary solution,” city spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said.
“We will try our best to accommodate them in current shelters, but there isn’t a specific plan to open a new shelter. We’re handling it to the best of our ability,” she said.
It’s unclear exactly why demand has been so high this winter. Cunningham said she thinks some people who may have stayed outside previous winters have found their way to shelters this year.
She has also seen an increase in the number of veterans, including young men who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. At last count, 50 veterans were seeking shelter at Columbus House’s two facilities.
Cunningham said she has also seen former renters seeking shelter after being evicted from homes foreclosed on due to the subprime mortgage crisis.
“The economy overall, it’s very difficult times for people,” she said.
Some of the shelter residents also recently have been released from prison, an issue the city has recently begun to address, calling for increased pre-release services for inmates.
With few other shelters in the region, Mayorga said “we’re the only ones that have made a significant commitment toward serving (the homeless).”
“There are a couple small shelters in the region, but most surrounding towns — North Haven, Hamden — they have nothing,” she said. “When it gets cold, people come here.”
Elizabeth Benton can be reached at 789-5714 or ebenton@nhregister.com.

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