NEW HAVEN – Addressing the city’s growing homelessness problem is the centerpiece of several mayoral candidate platforms – and all are eyeing affordable housing as a solution.
The six candidates – five Democrats and write-in candidate Maycee Torres – say New Haven’s homeless population, which includes several encampments in the city and numerous unhoused people at Union Station, should be addressed head-on with various housing options.
As of early August, the Greater New Haven area had 721 homeless individuals, 284 homeless families with children, and 30 homeless families without children, according to state housing data provided to the city. Local leaders said most of them reside within city limits.
Democratic Mayor Justin Elicker said his administration has implemented a comprehensive approach to the city’s homelessness crisis. Though Elicker has been criticized by his opponents and advocates that not enough is being done to house and feed the homeless, Elicker countered that New Haven has made numerous strides toward addressing the problem.
In an interview this week with CT Examiner, the 51-year-old Elicker, who is seeking his third mayoral term, said the homelessness issue has many complicated angles that need attention, but everything goes back to housing.
“We are expanding the number of emergency housing that we provide,” Elicker said. “But ultimately, we are not going to address the situation through emergency housing, as we are going to have to address the situation through increasing affordable housing in the city.”
Specifically, Elicker pointed to three centers of refuge where 105 people are served, the recently acquired Days Inn on Foxon Boulevard which has 112 beds, and a temporary emergency shelter on Terminal Lane off Ella Grasso Boulevard with an additional 50 beds.
“We have brought 900 new and renovated, affordable and deeply affordable units online over the past three years, with more than 900 in the pipeline,” he said.
Elicker also echoed the position of homeless advocates in saying “there is just not enough housing, and the state is not facilitating enough development to provide enough housing.”
Sarah Fox, CEO of the Hartford-based Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, told CT Examiner that state funding is also at a crisis level. The money needed to adequately address the homeless issue just isn’t there, she said.
Fox, whose organization is not endorsing any candidate in this election, said funding was requested for a cold weather emergency response system. The system needs $5 million each year to operate, she said, but no money was allocated in the state budget passed earlier this year.
Additionally, Fox said, “We asked for $50 million last session for the homeless response system and we got $7 million – $2 million for flexible funding and $5 million more. … We are at the juncture where we have winter coming and we do face chronic underfunding. We need to have the funding necessary to operate shelters and services.”
In New Haven, several candidates challenging Elicker put the blame for the homeless crisis squarely at his feet, while others said he was doing an adequate job that could be improved upon.
Torres lives near Rosette Street in the city’s Hill neighborhood, where there’s a homeless encampment that, for the most part, coexists with neighbors.
But 50-year-old Torres, who works in the social services field and is one of Elicker’s strongest critics, told CT Examiner she spoke to several people at the encampment and that it “left a bad taste in my mouth.” She says people at the encampment are using illegal drugs and that it’s not safe for residents.
Torres said the encampment needs to be moved or taken down, and that Elicker and the city’s service agencies have done little to address a growing and sometimes dangerous crisis. Elicker has said the city will not remove encampments “unless there is a health or human safety issue.”
“He [Elicker] has brought about this intense gentrification process,” Torres said. “He is mini-Trump. I’m the candidate that is not going to be swayed by the left or the right. This mayor doesn’t represent me. We need someone that will look at these things and say, ‘Let’s be sensible here.’’’
Torres said the city’s social services agencies have not worked together to address the growing homeless population.
“We need to talk to other [social service] organizations that are within the state, not just New Haven, and figure out how we can do things better. We need community health workers and case managers that can work with them in an intensive way.”
Torres also said the city has too many luxury apartments and not enough affordable housing.
Democrat Shafiq Abdussabur, a 56-year-old retired New Haven police sergeant and the owner of a multimillion dollar company, told CT Examiner that if the “administration was doing a good job [dealing with the homeless], then I wouldn’t be running for mayor.”
Abdussabur, who said he’s hired homeless and unhoused individuals for his company and mayoral campaign, unveiled a proposal in May called “A Better Plan for our Homeless.”
The plan’s main goal is to create the Mayor’s Office for Homeless Initiatives that, he said, would be a direct line between the mayor’s office and entities such as the Community Services Administration, the city’s Health Department, the Board of Alders, and state, federal and community partners and organizations.
Abdussabur said the initiative is “committed to the Housing First framework.” The Housing First plan is based on a federal policy that directs billions of dollars nationwide to provide homeless with permanent housing, but doesn’t require those individuals to accept services like treatment for medical illness or drug abuse.
Abdussabur, like many of the candidates running, said it’s essential to “offer alternative housing – a combination of a few things like tiny homes and microhousing. We also need more temporary shelters that focus on families, women and children.”
Depending on the city and state, policies dealing with the homeless differ.
In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has called for the police, paramedics and other groups that work with the homeless to send people to hospitals when mental illness leaves them unable to “meet basic living needs,” even if they aren’t threatening to hurt themselves or others. That policy has garnered some criticism and legal challenges; there does not appear to be any community in Connecticut that has a similar policy.
But at New Haven’s Union Station, the state Department of Transportation and Park New Haven work with law enforcement and security personnel to remove unhoused individuals who appear to be bothering travelers.
There have also been controversial incidents regarding the city’s homeless in recent months. Twice in March, New Haven issued eviction notices to residents of the homeless encampment along West River, off Ella T. Grasso Boulevard.
Unlike at the Rosette Street encampment, Elicker said the encampment along West River had issues and “concerns about health and human safety. There were also people heating tents that were highly inflammable, and there was a lot of human waste on the site.”
Democratic challenger and Hartford’s interim inspector general Liam Brennan told CT Examiner this week that the mayor is trying when it comes to the homeless, but said the West River encampment was allowed to grow over time.
“There was this forced eviction on one of the coldest days of the year. They were kicking everybody out. This should have been dealt with much earlier, and people should have been eased out of the situation,” Brennan said.
In response, Elicker admitted “there are some things that we could have done differently” at West River.
“We worked very quickly and we removed the encampment because we had a lot of concern about health and human safety.” Elicker said, but in hindsight, “we probably had more [police officers on the scene] than were necessary.”
For Democrat Tom Goldenberg, who was endorsed by the city’s Republican Town Committee, there are several actions he would take, if elected, to address the growing homelessness problem.
Goldenberg echoed the sentiments of several candidates in saying “homelessness is a housing issue.”
The 41-year-old former management consultant at McKinsey & Co. said he’d “freeze property taxes over the next two years” and push for rent cap legislation via the state Legislature. He also supports working with the state and federal delegations related to housing vouchers, which is a federally funded program.
Goldenberg said there are about 16,000 people on a waitlist in Greater New Haven to receive subsidized housing via a voucher and that it’s important to “address these things holistically.”
He also said it’s essential to “address housing insecurity, housing affordability and homelessness at the local level.”
The candidates agreed that working with stakeholders to try and alleviate the homelessness crisis is essential.
Brennan said, if elected, he’d coordinate with activists, nonprofits, social service agencies and affected residents to hold regular meetings on the homelessness crisis in the city.
“Engaging people in the neighborhood” would be a top priority, he said.
Abdussabur said he’d meet on a regular basis with financial partners, like businesses, and housing partners, such as landlords, to work toward a solution.
“We also need to bring the social workers to the table. Social workers, social service agencies, and landlords, let’s get them altogether,” he said.
Abdussabur said he’s running to end homelessness, and that unhoused individuals need work.
“Money is directly tied to dignity. No one wants a handout,” said Abdussabur, who noted the business community needs to step up and hire people who might not have a home.
Several candidates said the homeless concerns require big measures and out-of-the box ideas.
Democratic candidate Wendy Hamilton told CT Examiner she’d house 200 homeless people in City Hall downtown.
“On day one, I’d open up City Hall as a 24/7 homeless shelter,” Hamilton said. “City Hall is a large, usually near-empty building, with five floors and bathrooms on every floor.”
Hamilton said she’d rely on donations from the Army Reserve and Army Corps of Engineers for cots, donations for blankets and mattresses from big-box stores, and food items from nearby churches and soup kitchens.
“Homeless people need to be in the center of the city where there are services for them,” she said.
Hamilton said the city has numerous empty apartments and buildings that can house the homeless. She also said she’d allow tents and tiny homes on empty lots throughout New Haven.
On other fronts, Elicker noted the city recently approved a law requiring new developments to have a percentage of affordable housing via inclusionary zoning codes. There is a formula to determine the percentages, which can vary.