The waiting room of New Haven's Union Station is pictured. Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent

With more and more people arriving at Union Station not to catch a train but in search of shelter, the transit hub’s management is working on ways to redirect people to the right resources — while questioning how much change they can create in the face of a fundamental housing shortage.

“It’s something we’re working on every day,” Doug Hausladen told the Independent when asked about the growing number of people experiencing homelessness who are spending their nights on the sidewalks and seats inside and out of the station. ​“It’s also something we don’t have a lot of control over.” 

Hausladen is the executive director of the New Haven Parking Authority, a quasi-governmental agency that manages Union Station’s day-to-day operations as well as thousands of public parking-garage spaces across the city. He also formerly served as the city’s top transportation official.

“I personally feel as though the experiences we are witnessing at Union Station are a part of the broader conversation about the lack of housing in Connecticut and America and the need for more housing of all types,” Hausladen said.

From Hartford to Stamford to Bridgeport, Hausladen said, ​“anywhere with an indoor station has been seeing a similar issue.”

Local service providers, such as Liberty Safe Haven, already send outreach workers to Union Station on a regular basis to connect people in need with case management and housing assistance. The train station is, like the New Haven Green, noted by nonprofits that work with homeless populations as one of the primary spots for people without housing to congregate across the city.

“We did notice a large uptick during the pandemic. It hasn’t necessarily subsided,” Hausladen said. A visit by the Independent to the station at midnight this week saw at least 30 individuals without housing hanging out around the shelter. A security guard said that number averages around 40 most other nights.

Hausladen said the New Haven Housing Parking Authority took action last winter as the homelessness crisis continued to grow past the expected pandemic peak. 

The parking authority contracted with two social workers from Upon This Rock Ministries, which served as one of the city’s warming centers last year, to provide outreach and transportation services for people camping out not just at Union Station, but also at State Street Station and the Temple and State Street parking garages.

That program ran for only 10 weeks, from Dec. 20, 2022 through Feb. 26, 2023. The cost of 40 hours a week for the outreach staffing added up to $18,000. 

“We did not notice the success that we had hoped for,” Hausladen said about the social worker contractor effort. ​“At the end of the day, without any houses for people to go to, nothing is changing.”

In the meantime, the Parking Authority is continuing to solicit proposals from other service providers to hire a part-time social worker who could help out at Union Station year-round. One $60,000 proposal beginning in July is under discussion among the Parking Authority, the Connecticut Department of Transportation and the City of New Haven.

That could offer support for staff at the train station who have expressed the challenges of dealing with vulnerable populations with nowhere else to go. Those include security guards tasked with upholding the station’s code of conduct, which bars individuals from lying down in the seating area or placing their belongings on the station’s benches except in the case of transportation failures. 

Hausladen said that all of the station’s staff are barred from placing their hands on anyone in the station and trained to hand over matters to police officers on site when situations escalate. In addition to following that code of conduct, staff are required to review the state’s Homeless Bill of Rights, which, Hausladen said, at the least serves as a reminder that ​“all people are allowed to be in a public space.”

“The sentiment around the bill of rights is there are limits to what we can or cannot do no matter what the public may or may not want us to do,” Hausladen said. ​“There’s limits to what policing power can enforce. And that’s a good thing.”

Ultimately, however, Hausladen repeated: ​“It doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of great answers other than building more housing.”

This story was first published May 19, 2023 by New Haven Independent.