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A Decades-Old Homeless Encampment, Health Concerns and a ‘Housing Carousel’

WATERFORD — On Thursday morning, a man named Adam and Waterford Police Lt. Marc Balestracci stood talking in the woods as a decades-old homeless encampment just off the Post Road was cleaned out.

“I just wish you would consider some of the opportunities that are being offered. Even if you disagree with the whole idea of moving temporarily,” Balestracci advised Adam, who wore a stethoscope draped around his neck and is known as “Doc” in the homeless community. 

“‘Temporarily,’ ah, see, the problem is that this whole process is temporary,” Adam replied to Balestracci, who stood near a tree with his hands in his pockets. “And we are still in the middle of a pandemic … Now the people might be housed for three months or six months or a year, but that’s not going to solve the problem.” 

Balestracci said he agreed, but turned the conversation back to Adam.

“So for you, we tried to get you out of the cold for the winter, six to 12 months and the town offered you free EMT training. I believe it’s over $1,000 for that training, which will provide you a career for years and years and years, which will put you in a better position to help this cause,” he said. 

Adam, known as “Doc” in the community (CT Examiner/Hewitt)

But Adam, who said he was a nursing student before the pandemic began, did not take Balestracci up on his offer.

In Adam’s view, the town is disbanding a community encampment that could provide a safe refuge during the coming wave of evictions that he expects if rent relief is not extended in January.

“Everybody’s being so calm and kind and reasonable. But in the end, people are still going to be in the shelter. People are still going to be dealing with this pandemic … the Town of Waterford knowingly is going to allow its residents to continue to be evicted. You’re not going to lift a finger to stop them,” said Adam.

“Everybody’s being so calm and kind and reasonable. But in the end, people are still going to be in the shelter. People are still going to be dealing with this pandemic … the Town of Waterford knowingly is going to allow its residents to continue to be evicted. You’re not going to lift a finger to stop them. [First Selectman] Rob Brule is not going to stop it or lift a finger to stop that. Nobody in the town government is going to lift the finger to stop it,” said Adam, who would not provide his last name to CT Examiner. 

A December 10 deadline

The Town of Waterford set a Dec. 10 deadline for residents of the encampment to quit the small slice of public land adjacent to wetlands and the Charter Oak Credit Union at 3 Boston Road.

Adam — the town believes — is the last resident of the encampment, but he says there are still others here.

According to Balestracci, the encampment has had problems with violence in the past, which led the town and the police department to become involved with finding housing for the residents, and with the approach of winter, he said that heaters in the tents had become a potential fire hazard.

“It’s not a safe place for humans to live,” said Stephen Mansfield, executive director of Ledge Light Health District, who said that human waste, soiled clothing, bottles filled with unknown substances, piles of household garbage and used propane canisters had been found in the area, and near to a waterway.

“It’s not a safe place for humans to live,” said Stephen Mansfield, executive director of Ledge Light Health District, who said that human waste, soiled clothing, bottles filled with unknown substances, piles of household garbage and used propane canisters had been found in the area, and near to a waterway.

The site has been deemed hazardous for public health and the encampment’s port-a-potty will be removed on Dec. 11.

Half-cleared debris littering the half-abandoned encampment (CT Examiner/Stroud)

Asked about a significant pile of human excrement and toilet paper debris visible at the site, Adam said he couldn’t speak for “what individual people may or may not be doing.”

“But if people abide by basic camp hygiene rules, it’s perfectly possible for people to live back there, so I’m afraid that lack of sanitation is not a simple excuse to throw people out into the streets. Is sleeping in doorways worse circumstances than a tent or a pallet house?” he asked. 

The eviction defense

Adam, 27, is a member of the New London Mutual Aid Collective, a local social activist group, which has written about the evictions at the encampment. 

Adam said that the Waterford eviction echoed the “encampment sweeps” in Denver, Philadelphia and other cities — which he says foreshadow a coming “eviction wave” that will sweep up renters and homeowners and will be enforced by the police.

“Someone will get short term support for housing, say a six month voucher, and for various reasons the landlord hikes their rent or the apartment is uninhabitable or any number of other reasons and then the person ends up getting re-evicted winds up back at the shelter or back at a tent city,” Adam said.

“If you can evict people who are already unhoused from their encampments, it’s much easier to go evict grandma in Waterford, throw her back out on the street,” he said.

He said homelessness and temporary housing can create a carousel effect.

“Someone will get short term support for housing, say a six month voucher, and for various reasons the landlord hikes their rent or the apartment is uninhabitable or any number of other reasons and then the person ends up getting re-evicted winds up back at the shelter or back at a tent city. And then the tent city is again either evicted or the person gets housing and the cycle repeats itself like that,” he said. 

The largely abandoned encampment on Wednesday (CT Examiner/Stroud)

Adam said he sees the evictions as a kind of political violence because “the political power of the police and the town government is being used to victimize the most vulnerable residents of the area in the middle of a pandemic and a housing crisis.”

In his view, rather than being a step toward a solution, the evictions are simply a way for government to wash their hands the problem.

“It’s the metaphor about a velvet glove over an iron hand. They’re attempting to do a PR spin, where they put people in temporary accommodation, whether that is a six month voucher in an apartment or a month in a hotel, whatever the case might be. Then, at the end of that, as far as they’re concerned, the eviction is over, the encampment is closed, they can just wipe their hands of it and pretend everything is fine,” he said. 

Adam said he was against eviction resulting from the inability to pay the rent or mortgage. 

“And even the CDC in their guidelines for tent encampments has said it is counterproductive at this time to destroy tent encampments because it creates the sort of ‘whack a mole effect’ where you have these people disconnected from services,” Gatch said.

“Everyone back here is a former renter or a former homeowner, and you’re going to see a lot more former renters and homeowners over the next year,” he said. “For anyone who works for a living and pays for housing, this can happen at any time.”

Hayward Gatch, a member of the collective, said by phone, that tent encampments wouldn’t exist if the housing system was able to fully address all of the needs of the community. 

“Given exceptional conditions right now, will we make exceptions, is it a better community good to allow a place to remain occupied during a crisis, or is it better to destroy that place deprive the community of that resource in a time when it is very likely to be needing it?” he said. “And even the CDC in their guidelines for tent encampments has said it is counterproductive at this time to destroy tent encampments because it creates the sort of ‘whack a mole effect’ where you have these people disconnected from services.”

A multi-agency effort

Balestracci said the Waterford Police put together a task force from area organizations including the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, Ledge Light Health District, the Southeast Connecticut Mental Health Authority, Alliance for Living, Malta Ministries, Waterford Senior Services, Charter Oak Credit Union, Reliance Health Inc. and the Waterford Planning and Zoning Commission to address the encampment issue.

According to Balestracci, the encampment had been in place for years, but more recently there have been high-level police calls to the site. 

“During the time that the police were back there they saw a hazardous site, and based on the calls, we thought it was basically unsafe back there. So, the Waterford Police Department teamed up with numerous organizations and we [started meeting] about three and a half to four months ago.”

He said their main goal was to pair every resident — at the time there were 12 people living at the encampment — with a safe housing option. 

“The group determined that December 10 was our goal. We want to make sure everyone’s out so we can get the site clean before anything freezes to the ground,” he said. 

Clean-up efforts on Thursday at the encampment (CT Examiner/Hewitt)

Balestracci said there is still one person — Adam — who refuses to leave and has refused offers of job training. 

“We’re struggling to find ways to connect with this one person and so he is now reaching out to everyone who will listen, thinking that we’re rolling in with tanks and that’s not happening,” Balestracci said. “I’m the one who goes back there. I go back there by myself, two to three times a week. Our main focus was to build relationships with the people back there and find them safe housing options.” 

Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, said her group has offered Adam housing options.

“He could be housed if he chose to be,” she said. 

Steve DiLella, director of individual and family support programs at the state’s Department of Housing, said his department offers solutions for housing homeless people, but not for housing people who do not want to be housed.

“We wound up in a shelter over here in New London and then we wound up getting a place and then we wound up homeless again, back at the shelter,” she said. “And then we had a place for two years and there was a lot of issues with that place and so we wound up going homeless again. We were at the shelter at the beginning of March. We left and we timed out.”

“Our goal is to ensure that everyone who wants a warm place gets one. Once we get to people who don’t want housing, it comes down to local [agencies]. The state does not have control over encampments,” he said. 

David Gonzalez Rice, senior project manager for the Coalition for the Homeless, said his agency has put out CDC guidance encouraging communities and police departments to avoid removing or displacing a homeless encampment when individual housing is not an option, and his organization especially discourages the practice of sweeping encampments without notice or very short notice.

“Unsheltered homelessness especially is a hazardous state in and of itself. It’s a different kind of a public health crisis as well as a personal health crisis for the person who’s experienced it. We often stress in training with housing providers and with outreach workers that people who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness especially are in a crisis state and one of the great challenges can be supporting their decision making in that state,” he said. 

Rice said that CDC guidance is silent on what to do when housing options are offered, but do not resolve a homelessness issue, leaving communities around the country to deal with the challenge.

Asked about the encampment, Brule responded by email.

“I appreciate and trust the community of experts who have worked tirelessly over the past 3-4 months, to ensure all individuals within the encampment have been provided safe housing options.  With impending winter temperatures and health concerns with the continued pandemic, the safety and well-being of each individual has been the highest priority for all involved, including Steve Mansfield, Waterford Public Health Director.  I want to personally thank New London Homeless Hospitality, Connecticut Mental Health Center, MALTA Ministries, Alliance for Living, St. Francis Home and Southeastern Mental Health Authority for their commitment to providing critical housing needs and wraparound supports for those at the encampment.”

Surviving together

Katalina, 40, and her husband, Wayne, 57, had moved, from the Charter Oak encampment where they had lived since June, to an apartment with a one-year lease. The apartment is rent-free because the couple has no income. 

“We don’t have to pay any rent until we start getting [income] from a payroll check or anything like Social Security, then we have to start paying. Now, right now we don’t have to,” she said. 

Katalina, who did not give her last name, said the apartment is a more appropriate place where her daughter and nine-month-old granddaughter, Sophia, can visit.

She said she and her husband have been on and off the housing carousel. They have been together for seven years and married for five. 

“We wound up in a shelter over here in New London and then we wound up getting a place and then we wound up homeless again, back at the shelter,” she said. “And then we had a place for two years and there was a lot of issues with that place and so we wound up going homeless again. We were at the shelter at the beginning of March. We left and we timed out.”

She said her husband recently had back surgery and may have to have surgery again. She has medical issues as well and had surgery at the beginning of October. 

The encampment on Thursday (CT Examiner/Hewitt)

“And so at the beginning of June, we were living outside. At first we were in my car, which I don’t have anymore. But then we wound up being behind Charter Oak from the beginning of June up until the first of this month,” she said. 

Katalina said the encampment was a community of people who looked out for one another and should continue to be available for people who are homeless.

“I think that that area back there should be turned into a community area where it’s safe for people to go. There are communities for homeless people where they have these little tiny mini houses where they can be and feel safe. In either that or a different location — a place where they can feel safe instead of being thrown out from all different places,” she said. “But if you can be [inside] right now and not be out there in this weather, then you know that I think that’s a smart idea, because it’s getting bad out there with the trees and limbs falling down.”

Also at the encampment on Thursday was a man who called himself Eric Doe, who said he had been homeless for 15 years. In Doe’s view, it’s possible to live outdoors safely during the winter months given certain precautions.

“We’ve done this centuries ago to where we survive during harsh weather, thunderstorms, tropical storms, winter storms, anything, we survived years ago. We didn’t evolve, we got lazy. We created technology, we upgraded technology, but in turn, it made us lazy and made us lose our survival instinct,” he said. “I’m a survivalist. I know how to live in the woods wherever I go. Living out here during winters, yes, it can be hard, but it’s attainable. All you need is layers and a campfire outside of your tent obviously.”

According to Doe, community is the key component to survival as a homeless person.

“[You need] community if you’re out here by yourself because you’re not going to survive because if you’re alone. You’re going to feel alone, you’re going to get depressed. But if you get a community like me and Doc, we’ve been out here for years and we know how to work together.”

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