As temperatures across the region plunged into single digits over the last week, homeless shelters across the state were swamped. This is a story about one of those frigid nights, and why some people seek shelter and others don’t.
Three men live and sleep under the highway in the North End of Hartford. They call their home the “cueva,” or the cave.
Some nights this week, temperatures lingered in the single digits, but this was not incentive enough for them to seek a warm bed in the shelter they get help from on occasion.
Jose Vega, the manager of the closest emergency shelter, routinely checks in on them and other homeless people in the area who often opt to stay outside. That night, Vega said, only one of the “cueva” residents sought refuge at his shelter.
“Every time I leave them, I ask, ‘Are you sure you want to stay here?’ ” Vega said. “They decide to stay under the bridge.”
One January evening last year, with temperatures hovering at the freezing mark, 919 homeless people were “unsheltered” (in the lingo of social service workers), meaning they were either living outside or at other locations unintended for habitation. Another 2,390 people that night were staying in an emergency shelter, of which nearly 500 were children, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports.
The number of people identified in Connecticut as homeless but unsheltered has continually increased over the last five years –- from 502 people in 2009 to 919 people in 2013.
While the state has a system in place to help get homeless people into a shelter that has room for them when temperatures are this low, shelter officials and some homeless people say there are plenty of reasons why people avoid seeking shelter on cold nights. This includes concern for their safety.
“Our job is to ensure the safety of everyone here. I won’t tell you though that there haven’t been problems. With 100 men in the same room, personalities clash sometimes,” said Alison Cunningham, who runs Columbus House in New Haven.
Vega said staff at his shelter, the Stewart B. McKinney Emergency Men’s Shelter in Hartford operated by the Community Renewal Team, search people when they come to his 100-person facility. In the past, employees have found a razor blade and other weapons, and drugs. Recently, Vega said he had to tell a gang leader that if he didn’t stop selling drugs out of the center, he would be expelled.
Vega said there was a woman who used to live with the three men living under the highway. She has now gotten back on her feet, he said, but before she did, she was very reluctant to go to a shelter because at one of them, she was raped.
Jill, a 32-year-old homeless woman who asked her full name not be used for privacy issues, said she had real concerns about going to a shelter when she recently became homeless. She has two children, and she didn’t like the environment she encountered at another shelter.
But she got lucky, she said. She was able to land a spot for her and her girls in a small shelter in East Hartford that does not allow anyone to come into the shelter high or drunk.
“It’s a very pleasant environment from where I came from. The other shelter was completely a mess for my kids,” she said. “This place is a godsend.”
Others are less fortunate. The East Hartford Community Shelter, also operated by the Communiy Renewal Team, has to turn away 10 to 15 people every day.
“We are having to turn away a lot of families,” said Sarah Pavone, the program coordinator for the shelter.
Others, she said, aren’t ready for all the rules and the sober lifestyle the shelter requires of residents. McKinney and many other shelters throughout the state are more lenient about admitting people who are under the influence, and they serve a much more transient population.
The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness in Connecticut reports that most of the shelters throughout the state are now 110 percent to 120 percent full and continue to take in people way beyond capacity.
Jessie Lee, 66, became homeless after he tried to retire, and his rent quickly began costing more than his monthly Social Security check. This week, he said he couldn’t imagine staying outside in this weather.
“It hurts to breathe outside,” said Lee, who has been to the hospital twice for heart problems in the past two months. While he has insurance, his expensive medical bills have set him back significantly.
Lee plans to leave the shelter in East Hartford next week, after being helped by the shelter staff, who found a cheaper apartment for him, and gave him some start up money. But his plans to retire have stalled indefinitely, as he had to go back to work as a machinist part-time.
“I think my future looks pretty good,” he said, when asked about the chances of becoming homeless again.
But for those who remain homeless as winter sets in, state officials are urging people not to try to brave the dangerous weather.
Last month, four homeless men died in northern California from hypothermia. Several people in Connecticut talk about a homeless man who froze to death in Hartford in the 1980s.
Because of the dangers, Lisa Tepper Bates, the executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said shelter workers and others are extra vigilant in getting people to come inside.
“The shelter outreach coordinators are outstanding in getting people to safe places,” she said. “There is a very small number of people who absolutely refuse to come in.”
The emergency hotline for homeless people to call — 2-1-1 — has received 250 calls over the last few days of people seeking shelter. Everyone of them was provided a warm bed to sleep in.