While many people who live outside tuck in behind a building for the night or pitch a tent under a bridge where they’re less likely to attract notice, a group in the Hill community of New Haven is pushing to change the culture so people consider them neighbors.
A notice stapled to the wooden fence outside a Rosette Street house alerts visitors that they are entering a “human rights zone,” one of the first hints of the community that’s taken root there. A peek around the corner reveals a teeming backyard — a tent city, some say, of people experiencing homelessness.
People gradually emerge from their tents and head over to a shed equipped with coffee and a stack of pancakes for breakfast. A one-eyed cat named Bustelo weaves through ankles, and a dog waits patiently for any bites that fall to the ground.
“Where you put your tent down is your land. And that’s a qualitative difference, because when you have a place that’s yours, when you have a legally sanctioned place to be, that makes you a neighbor,” said Mark Colville, who lives in the house and helped organize the tent city in his backyard.
The group, known as the Rosette Village Neighborhood Collective, announced Thursday that they’d built more-permanent tiny houses in the backyard, which now sit alongside the tents. Tiny houses in public spaces have been used as shelter for people experiencing homelessness in several cities across the United States, including Dignity Village in Portland, Ore.
But the Rosette Village tiny houses are in violation of city building ordinances, Mayor Justin Elicker said on Thursday. The city has sent a cease and desist letter, demanding that they either come into conversation with officials to go through the legal process, by getting permits and a zoning variance, or take the structures down.
“I think that we all want to make sure that there’s more housing options, affordable housing options in the city, and we appreciate that the group at [the Rosette Street house] is interested in that long-term goal,” Elicker said. “They’ve unfortunately constructed structures that don’t abide by the city’s laws, and just like any other property owner in the city, they need to follow a process.”
A Rosette Village press release announcing the new tiny houses mentions the city’s willingness to work with the group to obtain permits.
Colville says they’ve built it on authority set by Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which establishes several human rights including: adequate food, water, sanitation and housing, among others.
“This is the clash … you keep scattering people and telling them to disappear, and we’re going to keep gathering them back together again,” Colville said.
Some who live nearby bring food to the people living in the yard. People know to just come in through the side gate, often not bothering with the front door. The people living there have weekly community meetings to decide how to handle any problems that arise and set up a chore list, a sort of self-government.
The number staying in the backyard varies, Colville said.
The idea, he added, was born partly from necessity. In the spring, New Haven officials bulldozed a tent city near West River, citing reports of public health violations.
“We are literally saying ‘Yes, in my backyard,’” he said.
The effort to maintain the encampment and build the tiny houses is also a nudge to city officials. The group wants them to establish a piece of public land where people experiencing homelessness can build an encampment. They say New Haven should follow in the footsteps of cities such as Missoula, Mont., Las Cruces, N.M., and Vancouver, Wash., to establish these legally sanctioned encampments.
New Haven isn’t looking at designating public space for an encampment, Elicker said. Instead, officials are working to increase emergency shelter beds and affordable housing options. They’ve recently purchased a hotel to convert into a shelter with 112 beds, opened a temporary shelter with 50 extra beds and extended the city’s three warming centers to stay open through the summer.
The city’s board of education also approved opening another warming center this winter in an old school, he added.
“Public land is public land for everyone, and if we designate that land for a specific person to stay on, it’s not public land for everyone,” Elicker said. “Ultimately, the goal here is housing, and the city is doing more than any other city in the state of Connecticut to expand access to affordable housing.”
City and state policies around homeless encampments vary widely.
Sometimes, these types of encampments come with city support such as setting up portable toilets or other sanitation facilities. And some places have laws that require people experiencing homelessness be offered a housing alternative before they are forced to move from an encampment.
Other jurisdictions force people in encampments to move.
Rosette Village, Colville said, is meant to offer dignity and privacy that can be hard for people experiencing homelessness to attain, he said. People don’t go into each other’s tents without permission, and they are free to live with a partner or pet. Often people who go into shelters are separated from their partners, and most don’t allow animals.
Connecticut’s last annual census of the homeless population showed that there were 3,015 people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2023, although providers have said that internal state data shows that number is an undercount.
Online data shows that the emergency shelters in the state served about 5,500 people in 2022, and the state Department of Education counted 5,093 students experiencing homelessness in the 2022-23 school year.
The number of people experiencing homelessness has been on the rise for the last couple of years after nearly a decade of decreases.
Colville says the tent city is part of a larger effort to decriminalize homelessness. People experiencing homelessness sometimes face criminal charges or fines related to their lack of housing. And it’s difficult for them to receive court paperwork without a permanent address, so some wind up facing additional failure-to-appear charges.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers considered several bills related to homelessness, including one that would have established a right to housing and another that would ban what’s known as “hostile architecture” in public spaces.
Hostile architecture is an urban design method typically used to keep people from lying down or camping in certain spots, such as armrests on benches and boulders or spikes in places people might camp.
Neither bill passed during the session.
Colville hopes to see changes in New Haven and the state’s approach to homelessness. He wants people to think of people experiencing homelessness as neighbors and a part of the community, he said.
“Simply put, this is a neighborhood response to homelessness,” Colville said in Thursday’s press release.
The house was set up to be a place of service. Colville and his wife have lived in what they call “poverty by choice,” or a life of simplicity. Through their years there, people who need a place to stay have come in and out, and they’ve served community meals.
Case workers, mental health workers and medical professionals come through to offer services regularly.
It’s a part of the Amistad Catholic Worker movement, which highlights acts of mercy, voluntary poverty, prayer and personalism. They focus on ending poverty and war.
Colville, his wife, Luz Catarineau, and their two children moved to the house in 1990. They raised four kids there, one of whom lives next door now. When construction for the tiny houses was ongoing, she let tents spill over into her yard.
They finished construction over the weekend on six tiny homes. The homes have Murphy-bed style cots and heating and air conditioning. Some are made for couples, and others are made for one person.
Donna, who declined to give her last name, lives in a tent nearby with her dog, Baby T. She’s one of the people selected to live in the homes.
She came to the tent city about a year ago after being evicted from a family member’s home. She said she lost everything in the move.
“I came with nothing,” she said. “All my belongings, everything was thrown out.”
But people donated clothes — both for her and Baby T — who waddled around with another dog in the shed at breakfast, hoping someone would drop food. One man having pancakes nearby watched for a moment, cut a bite and flicked it onto the floor with a shrug and a “Whoops!” as the dogs trotted over.
It’s set up as what Colville refers to as a “micro-neighborhood.”
“People are legally and socially conditioned into not recognizing homeless people as neighbors,” Colville said.
“When you don’t have a legal place to be, you’re not considered a person.”
The hope is to change that perspective, he added.
He said others who live in the Hill have been welcoming. If they have a problem with anything at the Amistad House, they address it directly with Colville.
“I don’t have any problem with those people, the ones who live in the backyard,” said Barbara Smith, who lives on the same block as Rosette Village, in a Thursday press release. “I see them here on the block, and they’ve always been respectful to me. They even help me when I need help.”
Colville said gaining trust in the community has been a priority. Now, neighbors offer some services, including food, to the people living there.
The tiny houses are made by the company Pallet. The project cost about $123,000 to build six units with eight total beds, according to the press release. The neighborhood collective worked with Amistad House and Benincasa, a farming community in Guilford, according to Thursday’s press release.
Colville says they hope to do a renovation on the house to close off an apartment for himself and his wife and leave the rest of the house open for those who need shelter.
“They have a place,” he said. “They now have two feet on the ground, from which they can fight their way out of poverty if they want to. But that sort of understanding sort of grew as they started forming a community back there.”