The waiting room had been deco- rated in an almost aggressively optimistic fashion—“Be the most brilliant you can be,” declared one sign; “Dance like no one is watching,” another reminded me—but, when the front door rang again, I was dis- tracted from the decorations. The wom- an tugged the door open, and greeted a girl and a boy with a familiar smile, and squeezed the girl’s shoulder. The kids looked to be in their late teens, and I could see at least two layers of sweat- shirts peeking out from their collars, between the hoods and where they had tugged their knit caps low to stay warm in the blistery February afternoon. The boy kept his eyes down, and sunk onto one of the couches next to me, but the girl went right up to the woman. “’Scuse me,” she said in a quiet voice. “I’d like some hygiene products.”
The woman nodded, and went into the back, reappearing in a few minutes with two double-bagged plastic bags filled with hygiene products and two boxes of condoms. With a small smile, the girl tugged on the boy’s hand, pulled him off the couch. They unlatched the door; a gust of icy air blew inside, and, in a beat, the door swung closed behind them.
Youth Continuum, a nonprofit that of- fers shelter, basic needs, and support for at-risk youth in New Haven, provides everything from basic health products to long-term housing for the youth that comes through their doors. Many kids, however, do not have immediate access to these critical resources, or do not know that they exist at all. The National Safe Place Initiative, which arrived in New Haven in 2011, attempts to bridge this gap by designating local businesses, fire stations, libraries, government agencies, and other storefronts as sites that will direct homeless youth to local service and shelter agencies.
“If a kid finds himself in crisis, there will be these signs throughout the city that indicate where he could go to tell an adult that he needs support and a safe harbor,” said Jason Bartlett, Director of Youth Services at City Hall. As of Fri., Feb. 7, City Hall joined the Boys’ and Girls’ Club of Columbus Ave. and the several Youth Continuum offices on the city’s list of “Safe Places.”
Safe Place originated in Louisville, Ky. in 1983, when the staff at the local YMCA Shelter House realized that kids in the community faced a challenge in accessing their shelter when they most needed it. “If the kid is, say, 20 miles from the nearest shelter and they have no transportation, they can simply go to their neighborhood Safe Place sight, and be connected to the shelter,” said Safe Place Communications Coordinator Hillary Ladig. Safe Place has designated 19,681 locations as Safe Places in 39 states and has served 145,553 youth as of Sat., Feb. 1, 2014.
In late 2004, the New Haven Mayor’s Homelessness Advisory Commission released the “New Haven Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness,” which reported that there were 1,113 home- less in New Haven, almost five hundred of whom were under the age of 18. According to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, in 2012 more than 14,000 people lived in emergency shelters or temporary housing that year. Ap- proximately one in five of those sheltered were children. While the mayor’s ten-year plan to combat homelessness neared its close in the past few years, Connecticut’s ever-increasing number of homeless citizens shows little signs of slowing. From 2009 to 2012, the state’s unsheltered population jumped 82 percent. On the night of Wed., Jan. 29, 2013, there were 4,506 homeless people in Connecticut, just over eight hundred of whom were age 18 and under.
Once Bartlett heard about the Safe Place movement, he began the effort to get City Hall involved in establishing Safe Place checkpoints in New Haven. On Feb. 7, he completed the training for his staff members, which consisted of an orientation on how to respond if a youth He reached out to organizations including New Haven and Yale Police, the Mayor’s office, and several Catholic charities and churches to become Safe Places as well. Bartlett hopes that, eventually, there will be around fifty Safe Places in New Haven. “We will slowly but surely, over the next six months or so, penetrate the city’s mindset,” Bartlett said.
A diamond-shaped, yellow sign that reads “Safe Place” in thick, black print, with the “a” in the shape of a house, marks designated spaces. Upon arrival, a staff member meets the youth and then contacts the appropriate shelter. For kids arriving at City Hall, or the Boys’ and Girls’ Club on Columbus Ave., and, soon, the YMCA, which is in the process of be- coming a Safe Place, Youth Continuum is the contacted agency.
“We have kids come in through our door every day,” said Kathy Grega, director of community services at Youth Continuum. She approximates that any- where from 10 to 25 kids come to the Continuum at Grand Ave. daily. The shel- ter’s primary goal is to get these kids off the streets by offering them a place to stay.
“No story we hear is identical” Grega said. “We have kids choosing to leave where they are living because it’s an un- safe environment, or kids who just don’t have any resources at their disposal at all, or who are living with families going through the addiction process. We have kids from out of state, who literally got off the train at Union Station and walked over here because they heard about us and knew we were here.”
The Continuum aims to provide these youth with immediate shelter services for at least 21 days. They also evaluate their education and employment skills with the end goal of helping to secure jobs. “Hopefully we can get them out of the day-to-day survival mode,” Grega said. “Get them back in school, or get them some type of employment skills. Our goal is to make them more self-sufficient along the way.”
The majority of youth who take advantage of the services arrive because of word of mouth, said Youth Continuum Vice President Paul Kosowsky. “Kids are coming in and saying, ‘Hey, my friend is also homeless. Can you help him?’”
The Continuum, however, has yet to receive any direct referrals from the designated Safe Places in New Haven, the Boys’ and Girls’ Club or City Hall. “The process for us to get off the ground and running has been slower than we would have liked,” Grega said. “But we do have clients that come in on a regular basis and say, ‘I’ve heard about Safe Place. I’ve seen that logo around.’” Even though City Hall is currently an accredited Safe Place, the yellow sign identifying it as such is not yet up—a delay that Bartlett attributes to ongoing conversations with the traffic and parking department. It does raise questions, however, on how close the Safe Place initiative is to achieving its mission in New Haven.
Despite the questions raised about Safe Place’s current efficiency, Kosowsky hopes that it will prove helpful in identifying the Continuum’s target population. “One of the areas that we’ve been struggling with is identifying younger homeless youth,” Kosowsky said. “It’s really difficult because most youth, if you ask them, even those who would meet the federal criteria for being defined as homeless, a lot of the time won’t say that they are homeless. They have a place to stay tonight; they know where they are going to stay tomorrow, even though it is not the same place as today. They don’t think of it in the same way that we think of it. Getting an accurate count of how many kids are actually homeless is very, very difficult to do.”
While the New Haven school system was reported to have approximately three to four hundred homeless youth last year, that number is likely a gross underestimate. “It’s probably triple that, including siblings, and people they don’t know about,” Kosowsky speculated. “The numbers are pretty big. And they’re largely hidden.” A few years ago, the Continuum served around 150 new youth each year. Today, the yearly number of new admits has nearly doubled. “We keep our beds full probably 99 percent of the time,” Kosowsky said. “So we turn away a lot. There are always kids waiting to come in. The actual housing is a real problem.”
He estimates that, of the approximately 300 youth that come to the Continuum looking for housing each year, they only have room for 40.
“Most youth that are homeless don’t trust the system,” confided Kosowsky. “They’ve been burned by the state system, and foster care. People tell them that they were going to do things that they don’t, so we don’t want to hold a promise. All we’re trying to do is find the resources to help us do a better job at providing the kind of services these kids deserve.” With the effort at City Hall underway and other local agencies pre- pared to become Safe Places, numbers of homeless youth in New Haven and across the state will likely only continue to grow. Although the Continuum is already operating near capacity and may not have the resources to support many more youth, one can only hope that the efforts of City Hall will help raise awareness on homeless youth in New Haven. Even if it does not guarantee that more youths will have places to stay every night, it does mean that maybe they will have a place to turn to.