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Solving Homelessness in the US: A Discussion of Causes and Solutions

Solving Homelessness in the US: A Discussion of Causes and Solutions

I just listened to this podcast which laid out some very complex problems around homelessness in the US in ways that are clear and easy to follow.  Highly recommended for those who wish to understand the most effective ways to solve homelessness, addressing questions like:

  • What should be done about encampments?
  • Are mental health and substance use really “root causes” of widespread homelessness, or is this really a housing problem?
  • What do researchers means when they say “housing problem”?
  • Where are the most effective policies in solving homelessness, and where is the partisan divide?  (Spoiler: It’s not where you might think!)
  • Why does California have 30 percent of the unsheltered population in the US while only 12 percent of the total US population, and is this a preview of things-to-come in other states?

Shout out to Margaret Middleton for the recommendation!

From the show’s description: 

California has around half of the nation’s unsheltered homeless population. The state’s homelessness crisis has become a talking point for Republicans and a warning sign for Democrats in blue cities and states across the country.


Last month, the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco, released a landmark report about homelessness in the state, drawing from nearly 3,200 questionnaires and 365 in-depth interviews. It is the single deepest study on homelessness in America in decades. And the report is packed with findings that shed new light not only on California’s homelessness problem but also on housing affordability nationwide.


Jerusalem Demsas is a staff writer at The Atlantic who has written extensively about the interlocking problems of housing affordability and homelessness in America. So I asked her on the show to walk me through the core findings of the study, what we know about the causes of homelessness, and what solutions exist to address it. We discuss the surprising process by which people end up homeless in the first place, the “scarring” effect that homelessness can have on their future prospects, the importance of thinking of homelessness as a “flow,” not a “stock,” the benefits and limitations of “housing first” approaches to end homelessness, why Republican proposals for being tougher on the homeless can make the problem worse, why neither generous social safety nets nor private equity firms are to blame for homelessness, and more.

Breaking Bread 2023 Address

Breaking Bread 2023 Address

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.

Then I delivered the following address:

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.


Advocating for State Funding

Advocating for State Funding

Last night, the Connecticut General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee held a hearing as they consider the Governor’s proposed budget for the next two fiscal years.  I was grateful to have the opportunity to offer some general comments on the proposed allocations to homelessness services.  You can watch my 3-minute oral testimony below.  The even shorter version is: It’s simply not enough.

DESK works closely with partners locally through the Greater New Haven Regional Alliance to End Homelessness and across the state through Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.  Through these groups, we signed onto a legislative agenda that focused on four important areas to Rescue the Homeless Response System:

  1. Fund the Frontlines:  We want frontline workers to be paid at least a living wage; this means that the wages paid by state contracts need to keep up with inflation and the increased costs of living in our state.
  2. CAN Infrastructure:  Over the last ten years, providers in Connecticut have been working very hard to build a system that can get people into shelter and housing (and out of homelessness!) as quickly as possible . . . but it’s crippled by a lack of resources.  If we want something to work as intended, we need to be willing to pay for it.
  3. Cold Weather Funding:  Seasonal overflow shelters, warming center, increased outreach efforts . . . none of these life-saving emergency-response efforts each winter are paid for.  We cobble together services each winter without any assurances each winter.  We need the state to commit to funding cold weather services every year.
  4. Flexible Spending:  There’s no straight path or one-size-fits-all strategy to getting out of homelessness.  A pot of flexible spending will enable people to avoid eviction, cover a security deposit, or pay for moving costs.

I unpacked all this further in my written testimony, in the hopes that legislators will take these recommendations under consideration in their response to the Governor’s proposed budget.

See How We’ve Grown!

See How We’ve Grown!

DESK has grown a lot in recent years.  When I first started working here in 2017, all the work was carried out by one fulltime kitchen staff, one parttime maintenance specialist, an intern, a few hundred volunteers, and a Board of Directors that had shrunk to six people.  Today, we have 23 people on payroll, as many as half-a-dozen interns at any given time, nearly two thousand volunteers, and a fourteen-member Board of Directors!

To give you a better sense of who works here and how we’re organized, here’s a chart:

A few items to note about this chart.

First, it’s backwards … at least compared to most hierarchical staff structures.  At DESK, we put our Board and Executive Director at the bottom of the structure in order to emphasize (and remind us!) that the role of leadership is to support those doing the work on the frontlines.

Second, we include our “Clients” at our Drop-in Center, our “Guests” at our Dinner program, and “Shoppers” at our Pantry program at the top, as those we serve.  But, we also include at the bottomAs members of the broader New Haven community, the people we serve help to inform our leadership, so that strategic decisions include all relevant input.

At DESK, we often say that our staff “wear a lot of hats.”  We try to avoid being too strict with everybody’s role.  Despite our recent growth, we’re still a small organization, and so we really do rely on people to step out of their comfort zone from time to time.  That’s why everyone’s job description includes, among their responsibilities, “other duties as assigned.”  (And if you don’t believe me, just ask Val, our Warming Center Assistant Manager, about my skills behind the café last Christmas!)

The other duty everyone’s job description here includes is “volunteer supervision.”  DESK began as volunteer, grassroots, community-based organization and — even after more than 35 years — much of the day-to-day work on the frontlines is accomplished by volunteers.  We’re fortunate to have almost 2,000 volunteers who come through our doors each year, all coordinated by Ashley Burkell, our Volunteer Coordinator.  Ashley’s job is to match the right volunteer to the right duties, serving as the liaison between our program staff and the ready-and-willing community.  But then, it’s up to our staff on-the-ground to work with and supervise those volunteers.

Finally, our chart includes our Board of Directors (none of whom are paid), as well as our Program Interns, who are receiving either course credit or paid compensation through their internship program.

It’s been wonderful to watch our staff grow in recent years, in terms of both size and roles.  I can’t wait to see how we can continue to grow in the years ahead, all in greater fulfillment of our mission!

Got questions?  Leave a comment below!


Steve Werlin has been the Executive Director of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen since 2017.
Donation Guide

Donation Guide

The people I work with will tell you that — for better or worse — I hate to say “no” to good intentions.  Whenever someone comes to me with a good idea, a bold, new strategy, or a helpful resource, I often can’t resist.  In fact, I find that balancing our resources and capabilities with all the creative and potentially life-changing possibilities for those we serve can be hard.

In my first year at DESK, I learned that, when it comes to good ideas and helpful resources, we should try to say “yes.”  And when we do have have to say “no,” we should always say “no, but . . .”

DESK relies heavily on community support in a variety of ways.  As a result, we get a lot of well-intentioned offers for help.  Sometimes, those offers just don’t quite fit.  That’s why I was very excited in 2019 when Elaine Piraino-Holevoet put together, with support from RecycleCT and Home Haven Villages, the first Downsizing Donation Guide for New Haven.  This is handy resource to help people who are looking to donate their gently used items to community organizations like DESK.

How to Donate Your Stuff

Step 1: Check DESK’s website!  Go go to to find lists of food, toiletries, clothes, and other items we regularly need.  If your item is on there, email us at  If you’re item isn’t on there, but you really think we might want it, just email us and ask!

Step 2: Check out the Downsizing Donation Guide.  You can peruse the table of contents, or just search the whole document (CTRL+F for PC-users).

Step 3: Still can’t find a place to donate?  Let us know.  DESK works with dozens of organizations and community groups across Greater New Haven; we’ve got a great network.  We’re always eager to make a good match . . . and equally eager to trade out that “no” for a “no, but.”