Last Friday, DESK held its fourth Breaking Bread Dinner. The annual fundraiser is hosted by our generous supporters and friends at Yale Hospitality, and this year, we were able to raise over $75,000 in support of the renovations to our Drop-in & Resource Center at 266 State Street. In addition to enjoying an incredible meal with equally incredible people — including supporters, volunteers, staff, interns, partners, and clients — I typically use this as an opportunity to highlight some of the biggest challenges DESK has been facing: a call to action, of sorts.
I started by thanking our long list of sponsors, noting the multitude of ways each contributes to our organization beyond their support of this event: Yale Hospitality, Houlihan Lawrence Wareck D’Ostilio, Yale University, Morgan Stanley, PAC Group, Yale New Haven Health, Maple Carpentry, Dolan Law Firm, Town Green Special Services District, Avangrid, Tzedakah House, Athletic Brewing, Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Beachwold Residential, Svigals + Partners, STV, Park New Haven, Huestis Tucker Architects, Berkeley College (and Prof. David Evans), Armada Brewing, Waypoint Distillery, Continuum Distillery, Ravenna Michelson and the musicians at Dignity Music, Melanie Stengel Photography, David Suraci at Fitzgerald’s Florist, Smith Party Rental, and our wine sponsors: Slocum & Sons, Missing Link Wine Company, and Lazeez Indian Cuisine.
Back in March of 2020, we had this beautiful event planned, which of course we had to cancel. But in the course of the last three years, we have made A LOT of new friends and brought together a lot of new supporters. These days, when I have one-on-one conversations with donors, with volunteers, with board members, with partners, they frequently want to know: what’s the secret? How does DESK build such a broad, dedicated, and engaged network of supporters? And do you know what I tell them? Can I let you all in on the secret?
We do really good work.
That’s right. Our staff, our volunteers, our partners: the people who work at and with DESK are literal lifesavers. And our interns, too! Shannon is an intern working on her bachelors in Social Work at Southern. And back in early December, Shannon and one of our Drop-in Center staff, Aisha, had just gotten off their shift and were heading toward the train station when they discovered a client of ours laid out on the sidewalk in the midst of an apparent opioid overdose.
The two of them sprang to action. Just as they had been trained, they assessed the situation, called 911, and grabbed their Narcan kit. For those who don’t know, Narcan, or naloxone, is a powerful antidote that reverses an opioid overdose in process. So that night, long before emergency medical personnel arrived, Shannon administered Narcan in the form of a nasal spray and saved this individual’s life.
And while it’s impressive that Shannon accomplished this in her capacity as an intern, the situation was not unique. At this point, all of our frontline program staff have reversed overdoses in and around our neighborhood. And no less typical is what happened the next day, after Shannon revived this person. He returned to our Drop-in Center for services. I know it should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway: we can’t improve the lives of those we serve if we can’t first save the lives of those we serve.
Having endured three years of a worldwide pandemic, we are in the midst of three overlapping public health crises in New Haven: First, we are facing a housing and homelessness crisis. As my friend and colleague Jim Petinelli always reminds us, housing is healthcare. We have too little deeply affordable housing, and a shelter system that is insufficient to respond to the need, a fact that was underscored this week by the debate over the so-called Tent City along the West River.
Second, we are facing a crisis in our inability to meet mental health needs for people on the street. Our system is cumbersome with too few frontline staff dedicated to clinical street psychiatry; as a sub-field, it is under-resourced; and those who would benefit the most are, still in 2023, horribly stigmatized.
And third, we are facing an epidemic of opioid overdoses, with highly-potent synthetics and tranquilizer-additives poisoning our neighbors. Those of you here who work in emergency medicine are all too aware of this frightening statistic, but opioid overdoses are now the leading cause of death for people under 40; and in the US last year, more people died from opioid overdoses than from car accidents. At DESK, just like everywhere else, these are our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters, our cousins, our friends . . . these are our neighbors. And they are community members in this city.
Taken altogether, these three overlapping crises are terrifying. And without public support and communal responsibility, they are entirely insurmountable.
And so that’s where DESK and the community that supports us (you all) come in. Our mission is to serve people experiencing homelessness and living in poverty by providing food assistance and services that promote health, community, and equity. We. Serve. People.
Five years ago, we offered a nightly dinner and distributed food at a weekly pantry. We could’ve stopped there (and some thought we should’ve). We could have gotten food out to people and called it a day, having fulfilled our mission.
But the first part of our mission is “to serve people.” We put the PEOPLE we serve first. Their needs, their wellbeing. If shelter and housing is what they need, that’s what we need to help them get. If mental health services are what they need, we have to make those connections. If they are struggling with a substance use disorder, we need to revive them, keep them alive, and then connect them to the appropriate resources when they say they’re ready.
And that is exactly what our new Drop-in & Resource Center is doing. Our clients come to us for basic needs — food, bathrooms, clothing, toiletries, coats — but once they are in our doors, we have an opportunity (in fact, an obligation) to connect them with additional resources that can help them move beyond homelessness and instability, and toward greater health and greater personal wellbeing.
We’ve been doing it since we opened our doors on our new State Street location in April of 2021. And soon, we’re going to turn it all up a notch. This spring, DESK will begin a $3.5 million renovation of our building. As part of this renovation, we will build a new, modern, energy efficient commercial kitchen in the basement. The second floor will include a medical clinic, staffed by Cornell Scott Hill Health Center’s Homeless Health Care Department. And I’m especially glad that we have the director of that department, Phil Costello, with us here tonight. To be fair, Phil has been with us, right at our side, since day-one, advocating for a full medical clinic collocated with a basic needs drop-in center like DESK for years. But we’ll also have space for additional providers onsite, so they can have private, one-on-one consultations with the people we serve. All of this will be connected by a new ADA-compliant elevator, a new stairwell, and a modern integrated HVAC system.
And it’s all happening very soon! For the last two years, DESK has been assembling a coalition of private and public funders. We’ve secured funding from the City of New Haven, from the state, and, thanks to our guardian angel in Washington, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, from the federal government. On the private side, Cornell Scott Hill Health Center and Connecticut Foodshare are both underwriting portions of the medical clinic and kitchen respectively. And we have a network of major donors who have pledged multi-year commitments to this project.
[Yale University’s Lauren Zucker was then introduced and came up to present DESK with a $100,000 contribution to our capital campaign. She was followed by Rafi Taherian, head of Yale Hospitality, who spoke about the longstanding partnership between DESK and Yale, and his personal experiences with DESK over the years.]
I am very excited to announce that with the federal funding, state funding, City funding, partner funding, and now Yale’s contribution, we are at this point 83% of the way to our goal of $3.5 million!
Tonight, we are officially kicking off the public phase of this Capital Campaign.
Some of you in this room have already made multi-year pledges, including 100 percent of our Board members. And certainly, just by being here, you’re already supporting this critical project.
But tonight, I’m asking you to dig in a bit. Giving to a capital campaign like this is a big deal. Most of you in this room give to us yearly already — that helps us keep the lights on and food on the table. Tonight, I want you to consider a bigger one-time commitment. But this time, it isn’t like your monthly mortgage payments or your heating bill. This is a once-in-a-while sort of thing — the new furnace or the down-payment on your house. It’s going to be a very long time before DESK does another capital campaign (I promise), so for this, dig deeper, consider what you can afford, and join me in ensuring that we are working toward a community where homelessness is rare, brief, and one-time, and where those who are suffering can get more than a lifeline — they can get recovery, stability, and personal fulfillment.
Our Board members and staff are bringing around pledge cards. You can fill it out tonight to make a one-time or three-year pledge; you can follow QR code to donate online or make a pledge; or you can bring the card home, and think about it. If you think you have the means to make a much bigger gift, then I want you to consider what helping those most in need means to you, and then decide.
Thank you all for being here tonight, for being supporters of our critical work, and, most of all, for being part of this community.