As days grow colder, life becomes more precarious for New London homeless
New London ― Sleeping rough in the city, especially on those frigid nights when the wind cuts right to the bone, requires a survival level of planning.
“Dress in layers and find the warmest place you can without being a nuisance,” said 61-year-old Brian Chapman, a New Haven transplant who moved to New London in 2011 without a permanent abode. “Spend a few hours at the train station ― until it closes ― or the casino. But at some point, you do what you can to get through until the morning.”
With temperatures dipping below freezing earlier this week, city-based meal centers and homeless shelters have already seen a jump in their client counts even before a flake of snow has fallen.
Inside the New London Community Meal Center on Friday, kitchen manager Mark McQuillar, 55, oversaw the facility’s lunch meal of sausage patties, stuffing and fries served to a full room of guests, some carrying bags filled with extra clothes and bottles of medication.
He said volunteers serve roughly 100 to 150 lunch and dinner meals to clients, many of whom rest their heads at the nearby homeless shelter.
“When it gets cold, that’s when they pack in here,” said McQuillar, his salt-and-pepper beard hanging below a blue bandana. “In this economy, we see people with their own apartments coming in to eat.”
McQuillar said he spent a few nights on the streets as a younger man.
“The way I wanted to live then landed me outdoors some nights,” he said. “But a lot of people don’t have a clue to how close they are to being homeless.”
The number of homeless individuals in Connecticut jumped from 2,930 in January 2022 to 3,015 a year later, according to an August “point-in-time" count report compiled by the Advancing CT Together group.
That nearly 3% spike doesn’t surprise Catherine Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center on State Pier Road. She said the 40-bed facility, open 24/7, is “always full,” no matter the weather.
On Friday afternoon, shelter clients leafed through newspapers and swiped phone apps inside a community room near a bank of mail slots and computer monitors.
“When we open the overflow space, usually on Dec. 1, we can see 40 more people on any given night,” Zall said. “Our goal during the winter is to get you inside, even if that means offering just a chair to sleep in. We don’t want anyone to die outside. Radical idea, right?”
Opening that overflow space in the nearby Emmett Jarrett Hospitality Center building requires an emergency declaration by the mayor, something that’s been done every year to ensure the center doesn’t run afoul of city zoning regulations.
Zall said a small number of elderly and disabled clients are shifted from the Jarrett center and into hotel rooms during the overflow months, so they don’t have to navigate the crowded spaces.
In addition to offering a warm place to sleep, the center’s staff works with clients on permanent housing, employment and social service needs.
“If we don’t find a way to help people move out, we’d have a traffic jam here,” Zall said. “We ask if they have a family member, even one living out of state, we can connect them with by getting them a ticket.”
Zall said the local homeless situation is the “worst I’ve ever seen” in her 17 years of working in New London County, but lauded state officials for approving $5 million in new cold weather funding this year for Connecticut shelters.
“The housing market has changed so much, there’s no affordable places to live,” she said. “We’ve got seniors that can’t afford to live in the homes they’ve been in for years and nowhere to go.”
And misconceptions about homelessness make matters even more complicated.
“People become homeless for a variety of reasons, from those involving health, substance abuse, mental health or employment,” she said. “But it usually comes down to being very poor. That means living on an edge so narrow that missing a couple days of work or a broken car leaves you with virtually nothing.”
Back at the meal center on Friday, Chapman said he considered himself lucky to have had a rotating series of friends’ couches to crash on during his tough spell more than a decade ago.
“I didn’t burn bridges,” said the U.S. Navy veteran, now living in his own apartment just up the road from the meal center. “Most people don’t know that most homeless people work every day.”
For Chapman, that meant a 10-hour day working landscaping jobs and worrying where he’d sleep that night.
“And even when I found a place, I knew I’d be up in a few hours to do it all again,” he said. “Even now, when it’s cold and snowy out I remember those nights looking for a place to sleep.”
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