Support Networks A Point Of Concern In Homeless Proposal

Dirk Langeveld | July 19, 2011 | Homeless Hospitality Center, Prison Closings, Zoning Board of Appeals

Members of several organizations offering assistance to the homeless were supportive of some parts of a proposal to convert a former Niantic prison into a center for the homeless, but also raised some concerns over what such a move would do.

The discussion took place Monday evening at the meeting of the Public Welfare Committee of the City Council. Councilor Michael Buscetto III has proposed a “Life Advancement Center” at the J.B. Gates Correctional Institute with resources for the homeless population of southeastern Connecticut, including the temporary sheltering of up to 350 people, medical and meal services, job counseling, and educational resources. Funding would come from the 22 communities in New London County, as well as state and federal resources, and a SEAT bus route would be extended to make stops at the center.

“I believe it’s a regional problem, and I’d like it to have a regional solution with regional partners,” said Buscetto, who is not a voting member of the committee but attended to answer questions.

Cathy Zall, executive director of the Homeless Hospitality Center, said she appreciated that the proposal put focus on the issue of homelessness and supported a regional approach. However, she said most of the people who utilize services for the homeless, such as the daytime services at the Homeless Hospitality Center or the 50 bed night shelter at St. James Episcopal Church, only do so for a brief period of time and rely on a personal support network of family, friends, clergy, and others to get back on their feet.

“Most take immediate and effective action to get out of homelessness,” she said.

Zall said that even with two daily bus stops at the Life Advancement Center, homeless people would be separated from their support networks. She said some of the services - such as meals, job training, and educational resources - could also be duplicated due to existing services in New London. Zall suggested that it might be more beneficial to strengthen existing programs and partnerships than to start new ones.

Lisa Tepper-Bates, of Mystic Area Shelter and Hospitality, said transportation would become a larger concern if the prison became a center for the homeless. She said that while there is a need for increased regional cooperation, she was not sure that centralizing services in Niantic would be beneficial.

“One of the biggest issues is to keep the families and keep the children in the community they come from,” said Tepper-Bates.

Lisa Shippy of Thames Valley Council for Community Action said one avenue might be to support the Homeless Hospitality Center’s plan to combine daytime services and the night shelter, reduced to 25 beds, into the St. Peter and Paul Polish National Catholic Church on State Pier Road. Shippy said such a move would retain services in New London, but move them away from the downtown area. Beth Hogan, of The Connection Fund, said that she thinks New London is shouldered with a disproportionate amount of financial responsibility for the homeless and that there should be more regional cooperation, with a goal of moving people from short-term housing into affordable housing.

Councilor Michael Passero, chairman of the committee, said he agreed that neighboring communities need to provide more assistance in addressing the issue of homelessness.

“We can’t just put all the lower income people in one community and start impoverishing that community,” he said.

Leroy Gardner said he was worried that the setting might be traumatizing for some of the homeless population, particularly the ones who have been incarcerated before. Gardener said though he has been high-functioning and his last job was in the customer service department of a car dealership, he is also being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in prison.

“No matter what renovations you do inside…the edifice alone will be a trigger for some,” he said.

There was some question over how much of the homeless population came from outside the city. Zall said several people use identification from their last permanent residence, which may be out of state even if the person has been living in New London. Buscetto said a Norwich shelter closes during the summer, with the homeless people it services moving to New London, and that statistics from the Homeless Hospitality Center and New London Police Department show an average of 65 percent of the homeless population comes from outside the city.

“Part of this [proposal] was to say to our regional partners, regional cities, ‘It’s time to help,’” he said.

Councilor Rob Pero said he was opposed to the proposal, but supportive of the idea to move services to State Pier Road. He said advocating job placement and other measures would be a better strategy, and that there is also a need for better education on what the homeless services do. Pero said the main issue comes from the homeless population with “chronic” problems or mental disabilities.

“Those are the ones that I think are the most problematic in many different ways,” he said.

Zall said the organizations have been cooperating with the New London Fire Department recently, and that the department has been on the “front lines” of responding to calls involving drunk or otherwise problematic homeless residents. She said this has helped to match some people with state services, including one resident who was picked up by an ambulance 55 times.

Councilor Adam Sprecace said he believes there are some benefits to centralizing services, but not all of them. He said there is also the possibility that some homeless people will not go to the Niantic center.

“There are going to be people who refuse…and by all inclinations that is their right,” said Sprecace.

Mayor Martin Olsen said he was concerned with the reduction of beds in the homeless shelter under the proposal to move services to State Pier Road. He said he was also wary of how state officials would react to the plan, saying the closing of Norwich State Hospital was an example of a withdrawal from such centralized services.

“The state of Connecticut has kind of made it clear that institutionalizing people in one place is not part of the solution,” he said.

Buscetto said the idea of the Life Advancement Center would not be to “institutionalize” homeless people, and to use the campus setting of the former prison to provide services in different areas. He said there are already issues with homeless residents refusing services and causing problems, including panhandling and assaults on hospital staff and emergency medical technicians. Buscetto also questioned whether the call for increased affordable housing would be taken up by other communities in the region.

“If this council thinks affordable housing is going to be built in East Lyme or Stonington, I think that’s naïve at best,” he said.

The committee voted unanimously to adjourn without action, leaving the proposal for further discussion. The Homeless Hospitality Center has won a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals as part of their plan to consolidate services on State Pier Road, and the Planning and Zoning Commission will vote on whether to permit the new location at their Aug. 4 meeting.

Langeveld, Dirk. New London Patch. "Support Networks A Point Of Concern In Homeless Proposal". July 19, 2011.