Warming Up

The sky has been pitch-black for several hours when I arrive at 1415 State St. on a freezing Monday night. No lights are on out front, so I walk down a steep driveway along the side of the building to search for the back door. As I walk, I can see fluorescent light emanating from narrow windows, reflecting on the asphalt. Right before I push the unmarked back door open, I check my phone: it’s a little past 10:30 p.m., and the temperature is 26 degrees.

I’m visiting one of New Haven’s warming centers: city-funded sites where homeless residents can rest indoors and access case management services without entering a traditional shelter. Tonight, there are 17 people checked into the State Street center, located in the basement annex of New Flame Restoration Christian Church in northeast New Haven and run by a local organization, Community Action Agency of New Haven (CAANH). It’s been less than an hour since doors opened at 10:00, but most of the guests have already curled up on the floor amid blankets, sheets, and jackets, strategically positioning themselves near outlets. One man is laying on chairs pushed together and has covered his head with a blanket to block out the dim light; a woman in a wheelchair pours herself some coffee. The ceilings are low, and the air smells faintly of cigarette smoke.

When I walk in, I’m greeted by two people: London Hobson, the site manager, and Kenneth Driffin, a veteran employee who helps to monitor the center. Both are employees of CAANH — they’re stationed at a table by the door, wearing lanyards with ID cards. Several items are scattered across the tabletop: a sign-in sheet for guests, a list of rules, a composition notebook for recording updates throughout the night, a tall container of Pringles, and a large dispenser of hand sanitizer. “We tell everyone to use hand sanitizer as much as possible,” Hobson tells me. “Twenty-two people died from the flu this year in the area.”

This particular warming center opened only two weeks ago, after logistical issues forced CAANH to stop using a building on Columbus Avenue. “We just moved from one side of town to the other,” Hobson said. The other building would attract 40 to 50 guests a night, but since the move, the number has more frequently been in the teens because of the inconvenient location. The walk from downtown is more than 45 minutes for an able-bodied person, but there are also benefits for residents who make the trek. “There are showers here, and we can control the heat,” Hobson said. “At the old center, the heat was locked up and we couldn’t change it. We used to call it a freezing center instead of a warming center.”

Though warming centers and homeless shelters are related services, the difference is pronounced, especially for those relying on the centers and shelters for support. Often, shelters have stricter rules and guidelines for residents. If people are dealing with issues that cause them to dislike being controlled or surrounded by people, they may be better suited to staying in a warming center. “We’re dealing with people who are chronically homeless, with mental health issues and substance abuse issues,” Driffin explained. “These are people who don’t traditionally follow orders.” Warming centers do have rules, among them bans on weapons, sexual activity, and re-entry, but they are far less stringent. They are also free, while many shelters charge small fees. According to Alison Cunningham, the CEO of Columbus House, many of the shelter’s residents are asked to pay $3 a day.

Photo from the New Haven Register

Yet shelters can often offer more material comfort. “The difference between center and shelter is that a shelter has a bed,” said Rick Fontana, Director for Emergency Management for the city. “At warming centers, they don’t have beds because there’s a square footage requirement, and it would be difficult for us to get that amount of room.” Because of this, those who choose to stay in shelters are often divided by gender in living areas, and sometimes even between different shelters. For example, Martha’s Place is an all-female and youth shelter, while the Emergency Shelter Management Services shelter houses only men. Columbus House offers space for all genders, but it separates floors into men and women.

This mandatory separation leads to a high proportion of couples taking advantage of warming centers in the city. “The warming centers are the only place that allow couples to come,” Driffin said. “Men and women, women and women, men and men, don’t matter, everybody can come here. Other places? They divide by gender, on different floors. Here, everybody’s together.”

One of three couples in the warming center on Monday night is Kore Hollis and Donna Torres, who have been married since September. For several months, they lived separately in Columbus House, until they were forced to leave. “We were both discharged with no warning,” Hollis said. They recounted that Torres was pushed by a man at Columbus House, and after the couple advocated for his removal, they were asked to depart.

Currently, both Torres and Hollis are unemployed; their only source of income is $219 monthly from Torres’ Social Security Disability Insurance. Torres has suffered from PTSD since she was hit by a car. The couple is trying to secure work and housing, but has already encountered multiple barriers. Torres has an arrest on her record, but does not believe she has a felony charge — contrary to what her caseworker informed her — a fact that influences heavily in her quest for housing and vouchers. “They said they wouldn’t take a chance on me because I have a record, and I might be incarcerated in the future,” she said.

The pair sees the warming shelter run by CAANH as a temporary sleeping place. “We’re here until we get situated,” Hollis explained. “We wished it opened earlier.” Guests are awoken at 5 and asked to leave by 6 a.m. Even with these abbreviated overnight hours, the staff still pulls long shifts. Hobson and Driffin had arrived at nine that night, and would end their 10-hour shifts around 7 a.m.

The first warming shelters in New Haven opened in 2013, after Mayor Toni Harp was first elected. According to Cunningham, the city realized the need for a warming center after homeless New Haveners showed up to Yale-New Haven Hospital’s emergency room seeking warmth. “One year, the hospital opened a room that served as a warming center. Columbus House had staff there overnight,” Cunningham said. “The next year, we staffed a warming center at Church on the Rock.” While Columbus House no longer operates the smaller-scale warming centers, other local organizations like CAANH have taken up the reins. “Each year the City of New Haven solicits Requests for Proposals for different categories of services for the homeless,” explained Velma George, New Haven’s Coordinator for Homelessness. “After the city’s most recent RFP, CAANH and the 180 Center were the only agencies to submit proposals for warming center services.” These organizations are the only two to offer warming center services — the center on State Street, and the 180 Center on Grand Avenue, which began providing services Feb. 1.

CAANH provides a range of services to individuals and families with limited resources facing complex issues. According to Emille Jones, Director of Programs and Case Management, several of these services are provided at the centers. “During the winter, we offer case management,” he said. “We help connect them with resources, like helping them to register for SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a state food stamps bill].” The goal of these services is to assist homeless residents on the path to self-sufficiency.

On Monday, the case management worker on the job is Douglas Kearse. He spends one night a week at the CAANH center, and also works at the all-male Emergency Shelter Management Services shelter. From 10 p.m. to midnight, he sits in a well-lit side room with yellowing walls, styrofoam cup of coffee in hand, meeting with guests about services. “We’re tasked with reaching out to people who are homeless or need a home. We try to engage them and find out as much as we can about them, and then see if they want — that’s very important — if they want services,” Kearse says. “We spend 90 days trying to connect people to services, prioritizing their urgent needs: substance abuse counseling, mental health services, and housing.”

Kearse’s hours extend beyond the late-night case management meetings, though. He grows close with his clients and is buoyed by their successes. Kearse theorizes self-sufficiency as an achievable process — and one that can be facilitated, but not rushed. He tells me of one recent success story. “One lady I met tonight I took to see the room [she’ll be renting] today. Once she gets access to her card on Wednesday, she’s moving in.” He leans back in his chair and smiles.

At 11:30 p.m., Hobson announces that it’s time for a smoke break, for those who are interested. “I need to smoke brick,” one of the guests says, rummaging through a bundle of belongings. One man asks her, “Can I have a cigarette for one dollar?” Hobson looks on, and repeats his announcement. He takes four people outside; the rest, including Hollis and Torres, stay snug under covers. One woman is slurping from a cup of Maruchan noodles. I chat with Hobson and Driffin for a few more minutes.

I leave the center just after midnight. The guests are largely silent: only snoring interferes with the staff’s quiet conversation. Kearse leaves with me, giving Hobson and Driffin a fist bump on the way out. I check my phone again; the temperature has dipped below 23 degrees. It will only get colder overnight, and the guests will be back on the streets well before sunrise. I open the door and the freezing air rushes in. Headlights flash on Kearse’s silver van as he turns it on. The door swings shut behind me, guarding warmth — and the people — inside.