Ronnie heading to a homeless shelter, with COMPASS's help. Nora Grace-Flood / New Haven Independent

The city’s non-cop crisis response crew pulled up to Union Station Monday night to assist a 78-year-old man into a van headed towards a newly opened homeless shelter in the Hill. 

At the same time, at least six others watched from a nearby stretch of sidewalk where they prepared to spend the night — all while state and local leadership sought to crack down against a growing number of individuals without housing seeking refuge at the transit hub.

State transit officials joined social service providers and a pair of state troopers at 50 Union Ave. Monday as part of a weeklong movement to clear out people who have taken to spending their days and nights at the station in lieu of a stable place to stay. 

That effort follows the opening of a new homeless shelter off Ella T. Grasso Boulevard with capacity for up to 50 individuals, which government officials and contracted service workers are offering as an alternative for anyone displaced by the station’s new state-spurred efforts to enforce its long-standing ​“code of conduct.”

The New Haven Parking Authority — the quasi-public agency that manages day to day operations at the state-owned Union Station — is leading the charge, primarily by stepping up enforcement of an extant no-sleeping-on-seating rule inside the station. 

Meanwhile, groups such as COMPASS, the city’s non-cop crisis response team, are working to support and transport anyone at Union Station interested in accessing a bed on the Boulevard — as witnessed on Monday night as they helped a single 78-year-old man into a van bound for the newly opened Hill shelter.

“It’s not much of a change,” Parking Authority Director Doug Hausladen told the Independent on Monday about the train station’s recent strategy to reserve seating for active travelers. ​“No lying down is the only difference that’s manifesting itself — and we’ve enforced that rule in the past. Now we’re going to be consistent.”

“We have 4 million passengers a year, and there are a lot of people who need that seating,” he continued. 

While the station’s code of conduct requires that anyone occupying the station’s seating area must have a train ticket, remain seated rather than lying down, and refrain from sleeping except for in the case of ​“mass transportation failure which causes delayed departures,” the station has become a de facto overnight spot in recent years for a rising homeless population that have identified the building as a safe, warm space with access to cheap food, running water and toilets.

“It makes sense to me why people are choosing to stay here,” Hausladen said. ​“The number of public restrooms available after 7 p.m. are fairly limited. People want the human experience of using a toilet. It’s really basic.” 

“While these are inviting, welcoming spaces, they’re not places for people to be living. We’re in the transportation business, not in the mental health or community service business,” Connecticut Department of Transportation Spokesperson Josh Morgan, who was on site at the station throughout Monday, told the Independent. ​“We just want to make sure everyone feels safe. And that includes the people currently living here.”

Morgan was joined by six employees from the Connecticut DOT and two state police officers Monday, while the city of New Haven also ensured that a host of outreach workers from local nonprofits BHcare and Liberty Community Services were on site through the morning and afternoon to offer resources to anyone kicked out of the station.

Morgan said the state DOT will be working over the coming weeks at stations in cities across Connecticut, such as Hartford, Bridgeport, Stamford and Waterbury to address what he described as the growing problem of individuals ​“loitering, sleeping or living” at transit facilities. New Haven’s Union Station was the first stop on that mission Monday morning.

“We’ve made it very clear to the state we can’t just kick people out,” Mayor Justin Elicker said. ​“But the state has also been pushing for increased adherence to the code of conduct.” The reason the state showed up Monday, as opposed to months earlier as the number of people camping out at the station continued to rise, he said, was ​“because we’ve been asking the state to delay until there was a place for people to go. Now we have more capacity,” he said, referencing the establishment of 50 emergency beds in the Hill. 

City Coordinator for the Homeless Velma George said that outreach workers successfully met with and transported 10 people on Friday from Union Station to those new emergency beds. She noted that while outreach workers have been enlisted to work additional hours since last Friday through the rest of this week while enforcement efforts amp up (at no additional cost to the city), those same social workers and counselors had already been contracted to build relationships with individuals camping at Union Station for months in advance of Monday’s move-out in hopes of getting more people on board to transition into a shelter environment or to take up case management.

‘I agreed to the shelter because I have no other choice’

From Monday afternoon through to the evening as dusk settled outside, Union Station’s seating and entry areas, typically crowded with people curled along wooden benches or asleep on cardboard boxes outside, were empty except for luggage-bearing passengers in the first few rows of seating.

On a sidewalk to the immediate south of the station, around six people who said they had been living at Union Station for months, if not years, said that they planned to live on the streets rather than take up the city’s new offer for shelter on the Boulevard.

David Zesner, 58, said he has stayed overnight at Union Station since 2018, opting on occasion to sleep at a motel or a warming center, as he’s struggled with a host of health issues that have limited his mobility. 

He said that while he has stayed at Columbus House’s overflow shelter in the past, the same building out of which the city’s newest shelter is operating, traveling from the Boulevard to downtown with the expectation of checking in and out of his bed at mandated hours each day proved impossible, he said, while attempting to move between doctor’s appointments and daily chores dependent on a walker. ​“It takes me about 45 minutes just to walk across the Green,” Zesner estimated. ​“I’ve had five heart attacks and four strokes. I take 14 medications for my heart. You take 14 pills a day and see how fast you move.”

Union Station afforded him a nearby bathroom, a place to charge his phone and take his medicine, direct access to a bus line downtown, and close proximity to drop-in centers and consistent meals along State Street. When the station closed in the early mornings, he would join others in sheltering under the pavilion just outside the building. ​“I’d back my walker up into the corner and put the brakes on, then keep my fingers crossed and say ​‘stay locked.’ Sometimes they wouldn’t lock, and I’d wake up where the taxis are.” 

He said a state trooper told him to leave the premises on Monday for not having a train ticket, the first time he could recall security at the station arguing with his right to pass the time at the station in the six years Zesner had been staying there.

“I asked him if I’d be able to charge my phone. He said I could if I did it briefly. My phone takes a lot longer than five minutes to charge.” 

Currently, he said his sole means of income is a $1,000 disability check once a month. He’s said he’s failed to find an available apartment in that price range that will accept him as a tenant.

“If I stay out here much longer, I’m just gonna be another statistic,” he said. ​“I would love to be able to get Section 8. I know sooner or later I’m gonna need a home health aide — and I need access to a bathroom regularly now, or I will shit myself.”

“Not that any of that matters to me anymore,” he said. ​“I’ve swallowed my pride. I will drop my pants and go when I need to. Is it right? No. Is it legal? Definitely not. But what else are we supposed to do?” 

When a COMPASS van arrived amid the taxis and cars beside Union Station Monday evening, they found only one man, who identified himself as Ronnie, willing to move into a shelter bed.

The 78-year-old said he’d been staying at the station for just about two weeks, after he left an abusive living situation. ​“I’ve never experienced nothing like this before,” he said, stating he’d been fortunate enough to maintain steady access to housing until this summer. 

“I don’t want to go to the shelter,” he said. ​“Being around that environment is really no good — there are a lot of drug users and alcoholics. But I’m not gonna lay out there in the street,” he said, gesturing towards those setting up sleeping bags and boxes along the sidewalk. ​“People urinate all over the place out there. The cold concrete can give you arthritis.”

“I agreed to the shelter because I have no other choice,” he said. 

With that, Ronnie stood up from his walker and moved towards the station’s doors. ​“We’ll help you carry some of your things,” COMPASS worker Famatta Gibson told him, guiding the man towards a gray minivan where she buckled him into the back seat.

This story was originally published on July 11, 2023 by New Haven Independent.