New Haven Independent: Wooster Square Lines, Worlds Apart . . .

New Haven Independent: Wooster Square Lines, Worlds Apart . . .

On Friday, five DESK regulars waited in the stairwell on the corner of Chapel and Olive, which leads to the basement of Episcopal Church of Saint Paul and Saint James. At the same time, just around the corner of Olive and Wooster, 30 people waited outside Sally’s, trading guesses about how long they’d have to stand for a coveted slice of Wooster Square apizza.

While renovations are underway at the homelessness services organization’s State Street headquartersDESK has temporarily relocated its afternoon drop-in center to the church. There, anyone could stop by for snacks, rest, support from healthcare workers, and connection with a community of regulars.

DESK staffer Norm Clement opened the doors right on time at 1:30 p.m., then sat at a desk by the front to sign everyone in. A handful of people, including a toddler and a grandparent, had arrived outside the church up to half an hour before opening time. A dozen others trickled in gradually during the afternoon. Each person received two blue tickets, which they could exchange for various snack and drink options at the back of the room.

I have a reservation,” one man said wryly as he jotted down his name.

Mykala Grace was one of the community members who arrived closer to 2 p.m. They said they found out about DESK about a year and a half ago by calling the coordinated access network hotline at 2 – 1‑1. ​I grew up in a multi-million dollar family,” they said, describing their relatives’ ​mansions” in Connecticut suburbs. But when Grace came out as trans, their family cut them out, and they’ve since lived on the streets.

By now, Grace has developed a routine that involves traveling across New Haven to find basic resources.

They turn to Liberty Community Services for laundry and a shower. They charge their phone at the New Haven Free Public Library.

I have food stamps,” they said, so at DESK, ​I make sure to get drinks — you don’t want to be dehydrated.”

They’ve found a community of other unhoused people passionate about advocating for their rights with U‑ACT (Unhoused Activist Community Team), which holds meetings at DESK and has called for a stop to city evictions of encampments and for a permanent, clean public bathroom downtown.

The number-one thing for me is safety,” Grace said. ​I’ve been sexually abused, harassed, discriminated against, kicked out of places for being LGBTQ.”

They said they recently lost a retail job after asking that coworkers and managers respect their pronouns; they’re now looking for work, and someday hope to go into the human services field.

Grace’s routine has recently changed; they used to charge their phone at Union Station, they said, until one day all the outlets in the station’s main hall had been disabled. (A couple of outlets remain usable downstairs by the higher-numbered train tracks.)

To Grace, the train station’s decision to block almost all of its public outlets was outrageous. Cell phone access is essential to find and maintain many jobs, they said, or to stay in touch with others in their lives while sleeping in vulnerable conditions.

Homeless people, they get screamed at or yelled at or judged,” Grace said. ​People need to understand: we need help too.”

At Grace’s table, Michael Anthony Norris said that while he too is seeking housing, he volunteers as much as he can throughout the city. He serves free breakfast at Sunrise Cafe, an operation inside that same Olive Street church, and is about to help the International Festival of Arts and Ideas run smoothly downtown.

He sat across from his best friend, Robert Paul Lowe, a Vietnam veteran and tarot reader. Lowe spoke of intricate local conspiracies and warned of the ghosts he sees at night. There’s a ghost by the newly-built skate park at the intersection of George and Orange, he said. ​Sometimes I see a pair of red eyes.”

At a separate table, hair and nail artist Maria Dejesus ate donuts with her son, daughter, and grandchild. Dejesus said she grew up in the area and currently lives in a Hamden apartment. DESK ​helped me back in December when I was homeless,” Dejesus said. She still comes by: usually Wednesdays and Saturdays for food assistance from DESK as well as Loaves and Fishes.

The food is fine, she said. ​Sometimes, people that are rich donate something… Sometimes you like it, sometimes you don’t.”

Dejesus decided to stop by DESK on Friday because she had heard there might be an art therapy program taking place at the drop-in center. She arrived early and was one of the first in line.

A survivor of domestic violence, Dejesus said she’s lately been struggling to see a beloved family member in an abusive relationship. ​She won’t get assistance,” Dejesus said, and their relationship is now strained. She said she’s also mourning a close friend, someone she’d adopted as family, who was recently murdered by an abuser.

She bears these family fractures with help from her Christian faith — and, on Friday, from a partial gathering of relatives at DESK.

Around The Corner, Waiting For Apizza . . .

Meanwhile, by about 2:30 p.m., one family had made it to the front of the line at Sally’s after 40 minutes of waiting — ready to celebrate a reunion from opposite coasts.

Sheila, Patrick, and their four kids had traveled all the way from San Diego to visit Patrick’s mom, Janice, who lives in a Greater New Haven suburb. Patrick grew up in the area and devoured pizza from both Sally’s and its renowned competitor down Wooster street, Pepe’s, throughout his childhood years. He’s concluded that traditional pies are best at Sally’s, though ​I like Pepe’s for the clam pizza.”

The family travels to visit New Haven-area relatives about once a year, and stops for apizza are a staple of these trips.

Meanwhile, at the end of the line, the Varian family — parents Meredith and James and kids Dylan and Blake — had just made it to New Haven after a two-and-a-half hour drive from their home in New Jersey. They planned to stay the weekend in the nearby town of Mystic, before driving to Boston Children’s Hospital.

The drive through Connecticut is, by now, a familiar one for the Varians. Their son Dylan is enrolled in a clinical trial at Boston Children’s, studying his symbrachydactyly, a congenital limb difference affecting his hand. So the whole family drives to Boston together — and a pizza stop is usually in order.

The family had never been to Sally’s before; they’d tried Pepe’s a few years ago. ​Dylan likes plain pizza,” Meredith said, so that’s what the family planned to order.

The long line outside Sally’s on Friday was daunting. ​When we got here, my wife was like, ​Should we go?’” recounted James. But they’d come all this way, and for the moment, decided to wait.

We’re pizza snobs,” said Meredith with a laugh.

$100,000 Raised for Unhoused and Food Insecure People in New Haven

$100,000 Raised for Unhoused and Food Insecure People in New Haven

Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK) is a New Haven-based nonprofit that serves people experiencing homelessness and living in poverty by providing food assistance and services that promote health, community, and equity.  Since 1987, they have served unhoused individuals just off the New Haven Green. Over the last twenty years, they have expanded their services to meet the changing needs, leading to the opening of their Drop-in & Resource Center in 2021 as a healing-oriented day program for unhoused individuals, offering a variety of basic needs, support services, and harm reduction interventions.

For more than 30 years, DESK has partnered with Yale Hospitality to provide food for their dinner program year-round, as well as support for the Thanksgiving for All program.  In 2017, Yale Hospitality began hosting the Breaking Bread Dinner; together, they have built up and expanded the event over the years.  Today, proceeds from the fundraiser account for about ten percent of DESK’s total annual budget.

This year’s Breaking Bread Dinner raised about $100,000 through ticket sales, sponsorships, and donations.

“We are so grateful to both Yale Hospitality and the Schwarzman Center for hosting Breaking Bread this year,” said Steve Werlin, DESK’s Executive Director. “It is precisely these sorts of committed, long-term relationships between Yale and community-based organizations that generate real, added value to New Haven and support those who are most in need at the grassroots level.”

At the event, DESK’s Board of Directors honored Rafi Taherian, the head of Yale Hospitality and outgoing Associate Vice President, who announced his retirement the day before the dinner.  As a former Board member himself, Taherian has supported DESK in a variety of ways for more than 25 years, including delivering meals on Thanksgiving morning each year.  “This collaboration is key,” noted Taherian on Friday night, as he was formally inducted into the McLean Society, DESK’s honorary group, named after one of their longest serving volunteers and past Board member, Scott McLean.

This year also marked the first time the event was held at the Yale Schwarzman Center (YSC), having outgrown the capacity of the university dining halls.  Maurice Harris, YSC’s Director of Communications, delivered the welcoming address and led attendees in the ceremonial breaking of the bread.  “Breaking bread together has been a principal theme for the Schwarzman Center since we opened,” said Harris, highlighting the natural connection between the center’s programs and DESK’s values.

Master of ceremonies, Bruce Barber of WNPR and WNHU, kept the evening light and entertaining, while Sommelier James Todeasa and Yale Hospitality’s Executive Chef and Director of Culinary Excellence James Benson described in great detail the efforts and considerations that went into creating the dinner’s experience.

Special guests included leaders of the Unhoused Activists Community Team (U-ACT), Carl Ferris and Alexis Terry, as well as several members of New Haven’s Board of Alders, including President Tyisha Walker-Myers, and members of Greater New Haven’s delegation to the Connecticut General Assembly.  Additionally, DESK’s Executive Director thanked a number of volunteers and Board members in attendance, and highlighted staff member Norm Clement, who saved the lives of three clients in the past year by reversing otherwise-fatal opioid overdoses.

Among the event’s most celebrated sponsors were Yale’s Office of New Haven Affairs, Morgan Stanley, PAC Group, Yale New Haven Health, Avangrid, and DOOR3.  Additional sponsors included the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Connecticut Health Foundation, the Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven, Wiggin & Dana, Tzedakah House, STV, Inc., Svigals + Partners, Lazeez Indian Cuisine, Skurnik Wines & Spirits, Smith Party Rental, Fitzgerald’s Florist, Two Roads Brewing, New England Brewing Company, Waypoint Spirits, Athletic Brewing Company, North Coast Seafood, Baldo Speciality Foods, and US Foods. Dignity Music performed during the cocktail hour, and photography was provided by Melanie Stengel Photography, both of whom donated their services.

This year’s Breaking Bread Dinner comes at a time of nearly unprecedented need, with both homelessness and food insecurity at levels that have not been seen in Connecticut since the aftermath of the Great Recession, and annual rates of fatal opioid overdoses—overrepresented among unhoused people—continuing to climb.  Werlin remarked that “as pandemic-era federal funding streams have dried up, the need for this kind of private support is critical to ensuring lifesaving services, like those provided by DESK, can continue and expand.”

“The renovations to our Drop-in & Resource Center at 266 State Street,” he continued, “will mark an important step forward in providing  a front-door to services for unhoused individuals.”  Scheduled for completion this summer, the renewed space will include a full medical clinic staffed by Cornell Scott Hill Health Center, as well as offices for additional partners providing a range of frontline services.  More information about this project can be found at deskct.org/capital.  Those looking to support DESK should visit deskct.org/financial-contributions , or sign up to volunteer at deskct.org/volunteer.

# # #

State Pressed On ​“Historic” Homelessness

State Pressed On ​“Historic” Homelessness

 

 

My name is Steve Werlin. I am a resident of New Haven, where I have the honor of serving as Executive Director of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, Inc. (DESK). I offer testimony in support of H.B. 5048, An Act Adjusting the State Budget for the Biennium Ending June 30, 2025.

DESK has been serving unhoused individuals in New Haven for nearly four decades. Today, our day-program for people living on the street — the Downtown Drop-in & Resource Center — serves about 60 people each day. Last program year (ending June 30), the Drop-in Center served more than 1,600 unduplicated individuals, an increase of 44 percent over the previous year.

Connecticut is experiencing an historic rise in the rate of homelessness. Since 2021, the number of people experiencing homelessness has gone up by 14 percent year over year. As of February 13 of this year, there were close to 5,000 people experiencing some form of homelessness in Connecticut, and as of January 29, there were over 940 people sleeping outdoors. At DESK, we have seen that the state of homelessness in Connecticut is exacerbated by the worsening opioid epidemic, making it more dificult for providers to effectively serve the hardest-to-reach individuals — as well as keep them alive long enough to receive services.

These figures are all the more shocking given how far we have fallen. In the ten years leading up to the pandemic, Connecticut did an incredible job housing people. Our Homelessness Response System — built upon well-functioning coordinated access networks — was showcased as a model across the country, particularly after we reduced first Veteran homelessness and then chronic homelessness to functional zero. Those gains are all but forgotten, as we have failed to continue to invest in that Homeless Response System, as well as deeply affordable housing.

The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ programs are critical to Connecticut’s Homeless Response System. The partnership between homeless services providers and mental health services is key to helping people ind safe, secure, affordable supportive housing that ensures success in that home and community. While I am glad to see that the Governor’s budget includes twelve additional DMHAS positions in this version of the budget, we still need annual, sustained funding to ensure that these positions have an impact.

As an organizational member of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness (cceh.org), I am proud to stand with my partners across the state in supporting both the preservation of the $27.76 Million in the DMHAS Housing Supports and Services line item, and the additional request of $20 Million from the legislaturewhich includes the following annualized amounts:

  • ● $5 Million annually for Cold Weather Emergency Response, to keep people from freezing outside and to ensure that every year, every person has a roof over their head.
  • ● $7.4 Million annually to Strengthen Shelter and Outreach, by ensuring front line homeless services staff do not fall into homelessness themselves and can afford to rent at least a modest one bedroom apartment.
  • ● $3.6 Million annually to sustain diversion and Coordinated Access Network hubs, so we can continue to connect people with critical support and resources to resolve their housing crisis.
  • ● $2 Million annually to support and expand the work of Coordinated Access Network Backbone Organizations, which prevent interruptions and maximize performance in a system that responds to the greatest need.
  • ● $2 Million annually for the Flexible Funding Subsidy Pool, which provides cost-effective, short-term, and accountable inancial assistance, including $150,000 in gap funding for youth experiencing homelessness in high school, to bridge income gaps and ensure the success of people striving to secure permanent housing

The $20 million of annual funding that needs to be added to the proposed biennium budget is, in fact, an important cost-saver. The inextricable link between housing and personal health — including opioid use disorder — means that when we keep people housed or get them off the streets, we improve their health outcomes. Housing is healthcare. Housing reduces an individual’s reliance on expensive emergency medical and hospital utilization. These expenses are incurred by the most vulnerable and most income-constrained residents of our communities; and they are paid for by the general public. The $20 million of additional annual funding we are seeking for the biennium budget is a bargain compared to the outrageous costs that get passed on to the taxpayers through emergency services and deferred medical expenses. That is why adding $20 million in homelessness services is not only the moral and ethical decision; it is also the right inancial decision.

In addition to the retention of $27.76 million proposed in DMHAS’s Housing Supports and Services line item, and the requested $20 million increase, I offer here additional requests that will support services for unhoused people and work toward eliminating homelessness altogether:

(1) Increase per capita funding for local health departments so they can effectively respond to the opioid crisis, mental health needs, and the array of infectious diseases that are more prevalent among and result in higher mortality among unhoused people. The current per capita rate is $2.60 per capita for district departments (CGS Sec. 19a-245) and $1.93 per capita for municipal departments (CGS Sec. 19a-207). Increasing the per capita (for the first time in more than 20 years!) to $5.30 will not only address the failure to keep pace with inflation; it will also provide health departments with the appropriate resources to serve those who are most vulnerable in our communities.

(2) Increase the recommended adjustment to DPH’s Needle & Syringe Exchange Program from 2.3 percent to 6.5 percent to address the increased need for syringe service programs (SSP’s) in responding effectively to the opioid crisis. SSP’s provide a critical touchpoint in building connection and trust between injection-drug users and service providers. By increasing the recommended adjustment from $11,886 to $32,605, SSP’s across Connecticut will be better equipped to save lives in both the immediate and long term.

Finally, I would like to express my support for and highlight the reduction of $610,000 in the General Funds portion of the DMHAS budget pertaining to Public Act 23 – 97 which established the Opioid Antagonist Bulk Purchase Fund. This reduction shifts the expense of purchasing opioid antagonists (naloxone) to the Opioid Settlement Fund dollars. Naloxone (or NarcanR) is a proven means for interrupting an opioid overdose and saving a life. At DESK, all staff are trained to identify an opioid overdose and respond by administering naloxone, as we have done no less than eight times in the past year. Moreover, like SSP’s, the distribution of opioid antagonists like naloxone offers a critical touchpoint between people who use drugs and service providers. Like condoms and nicotine gum, these kinds of harm reduction strategies acknowledge in a non-judgemental manner the human element behind risky behavior, and build important connections and trust that will enable people to move toward recovery and greater health and wellbeing.

I have included as an attachment the two-page document produced by CCEH detailing more fully how the requested $20 million of additional annual funding for the Homeles Response System should be allocated. I encourage you to read through this and reach out to CCEH’s CEO, Sarah Fox (sfox@cceh.org), who can address any questions or concerns.

If you have any questions regarding the state of homelessness on the ground, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at swelin@deskct.org or (475) 238‑8557.

Thank you for this opportunity to offer testimony.

How many cooks does it take to cook over 1,260 gourmet Thanksgiving meals?

How many cooks does it take to cook over 1,260 gourmet Thanksgiving meals?

Marchitto, who runs the culinary operations at CSC, is referencing his staff and colleagues — a team of chefs, cooks, and pantry workers who earnestly roast, whip, and wrap a savory Thanksgiving meal for New Haven residents who might otherwise go hungry. DESK, a community-based, non-profit organization, serves people experiencing homelessness or living in poverty by providing food assistance and services that promote health, community, and equity. It offers three year-round programs: a nightly dinner service, a weekly food pantry, and a Drop-In and Resource Center. A few weeks before the holiday, DESK coordinates a Turkey Drop event, collecting about 250 turkeys and 1,500 pounds of non-perishable items that complement a Thanksgiving meal. The CSC is Yale Hospitality’s central operation for baking, catering, and cold food production. With a staff of 40-strong, the CSC produces approximately 4,800 pounds (nearly 2.5 tons) of food each day for the university’s dining halls, retail locations, and catering. For DESK’S Thanksgiving program, the CSC prepare about 750 boxed meals that include oven-roasted turkey, homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, roasted Brussels sprouts and harvest vegetables, and cranberry sauce. “Yale Hospitality is a terrific partner to work with at Thanksgiving and year-round. For the holiday, their team prepares an incredible culinary feast,” said Steve Werlin, executive director of DESK.

“It’s amazing that a small group of individuals working together can make a huge difference in the lives of so many.”

Yale Hospitality staff have supported DESK with the production process for many years. “DESK has limited space to store and cook all the turkeys donated to them. Around 20 years ago, a dedicated group of Yale Hospitality staff voluntarily took that on. They came in at night on their own time to prepare the meals utilizing the commercial-sized ovens in the former Commons kitchen,” said Dan Flynn, director of asset renewal and planned projects for Yale Hospitality.

From Freezer to Front-door

The turkeys collected during the Turkey Drop event are delivered to the CSC by DESK staff and volunteers. About 100 turkeys are thawed and processed for roasting, and any remaining turkeys are placed in a large walk-in refrigerator to slowly defrost. These turkeys are returned to DESK’s pantry, where families who want to cook their holiday dinner can pick one up along with other food items to make a Thanksgiving meal. After the turkeys and vegetables are roasted, potatoes mashed, and gravy simmered, everything is chilled. In assembly-line style, the meals are packed into individual to-go boxes. “Over the span of 2-weeks, dozens of Hospitality employees have had a hand in helping—from drivers, chefs, pantry workers, and cooks to support and logistics staff. It is a huge group effort, and everyone on the CSC team gets involved in addition to colleagues from other dining halls,” said Marchitto. The prepackaged meals are loaded onto a refrigerated truck and driven back to DESK, whose staff in partnership with Interfaith Volunteer Care Givers (IVCG) coordinate the meal delivery and manage the onsite pantry. Volunteers—who provide their own transportation—are given routes, names, addresses, and the boxed meals for delivery, and no meal would be complete without slices of locally donated pumpkin pie and bread. “We get to meet people in the community, wish them a Happy Thanksgiving, and see the positive impact of this initiative and a lot of smiles,” says Rafi Taherian, associate vice president for Yale Hospitality. Taherian, and his family have been volunteering with DESK for over 15 years, most recently delivering the holiday meals to residents on Thanksgiving morning.

History Lesson

For three decades, DESK has been coordinating some type of Thanksgiving program with Yale. “At one point, the DESK chefs would cook the turkey dinners, and students from the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP) would help serve the meals that morning in the basement of the Center Church’s Parish House,” said Taherian. The partnership was formalized in 2008 through Taherian’s leadership and passion for supporting New Haven neighbors. “I reached out to DESK seeking a direct way for Yale Hospitality to work with them. The collaboration has evolved beyond Thanksgiving,” said Taherian. “Donations and food rescue programs are ongoing, directly benefiting those in need. We also do a yearly fundraiser for DESK. Many members of our staff are very invested in supporting the local community and volunteer with DESK throughout the year.” To prepare for the program, the CSC team cooked 285 pounds of turkey, 1,200 pounds of vegetables, 36 gallons of cranberry sauce, and boxed 750 meals. City residents enjoyed a hearty meal provided by a dedicated group of individuals who don’t want anyone to go hungry. “When you are involved in something like this where you are feeding people, you are connected physically and emotionally to that type of giving. The togetherness you experience when collaborating with individuals who share the same passion is equally as rewarding,” said Taherian.

Interested in volunteering?

“Hunger exists 365 days a year,” says Werlin. “We always need volunteers to help serve daily meals in our dining hall, staff our pantry, or coordinate a food or coat drive. It doesn’t take a lot to make a huge difference in someone’s life, even just for one day.” There are a variety of opportunities to volunteer. DESK and Yale Hospitality partner throughout the year on daily food rescue and fundraising events, including the Annual Breaking Bread five-course dinner event held in March.

 

WNPR: Addressing misconceptions around food insecurity: ‘It’s about more than food’

WNPR: Addressing misconceptions around food insecurity: ‘It’s about more than food’

From Katie Pellico & Catherine Shen’s reporting:

For a Connecticut family of four, it costs over $126,000 just to meet their basic needs, according to a recent United Way report. That’s more than four times the federal poverty level.

 

Food insecurity is a big part of the problem, affecting more than 1 in 10 Connecticut residents, according to Connecticut Foodshare. A new report from the United States Department of Agriculture found the national rate of food insecurity jumped by more than 2% from 2021 to 2022, now 12.8% of U.S. households.

 

This hour, UConn’s Dr. Caitlin Caspi joins us to address some of the misconceptions around food insecurity.

 

“Food insecurity isn’t happening in a vacuum,” she says. “It’s really intersecting with a lot of other challenges that people face,” including stable housing, health insurance, job security, disability, and other factors. “Food insecurity isn’t primarily a story about food,” says Dr. Caspi. “It’s about many facets of economic instability.”

 

Plus, we’ll discuss some of Connecticut Foodshare’s efforts to address food insecurity where we live, including an income-based grocery store coming soon to Hartford, where food insecurity rates are highest in the state.

 

Hartford High School just launched the Grub Pub, an in-school pantry. Principal Flora Padro joins us later in the hour, describing the “new normal” she envisions.

 

GUESTS:

 

Cat Pastor contributed to this episode which originally aired October 26, 2023.