The following article appeared in the New Haven Independent on June 11, 2021. The original post, along with reader comments, can be viewed here.
by Isaac Yu
For the first time in decades, homeless New Haveners have a place downtown where they’re invited to come hang out, have an iced drink, socialize, and escape from the summer heat, no questions asked.
That place is the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK) drop-in facility at 266 State St. in the Ninth Square, inside a building the nonprofit purchased last December. DESK’s drop-in facility is open Sunday to Friday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.
This is the first step in DESK’s transition from 311 Temple St. to the new facility. Eventually, all of the nonprofit’s activities, including the original dinner service that kept people fed during the pandemic, will be at 266 State. The three-story building will provide not only basic necessities but a comfortable place to access a variety of higher-level resources.
The drop-in center revives a service the People’s Center provided in the 1990s, to give people downtown with nowhere else to go a safe dedicated place to hang out. Now people often end up in public places primarily devoted to other uses.
The drop-in center opened in April.
“We’re focused on serving the whole person,” DESK Executive Director Steve Werlin said. “The goal of this program is to provide people who have no place else to go with a place to hang out during the day, get a cup of coffee, sit down, have something to eat, use wifi, meet with case managers or outreach workers. A place they can not fear of being kicked out -– a place they can call home.”
Eddy Rodriguez visits the drop-in center nearly every day. A tattoo artist, Rodriguez makes use of DESK’s provided color pencils to “clear my mind.”
“It’s an environment where you can just relax and not worry constantly,” he said.
Two visitors on Wednesday, who gave their names as Harley and Joker, echoed those sentiments. Both said they have gotten to know Werlin and other staff members and praised the atmosphere of the new facility.
“It’s my three hours where I don’t have to worry,” Harley said. “They treat me like a human being. You’ll always find a friendly person with a smile. And it’s caring from a genuine place, and this is the only place that has helped us indiscriminately.”
A visitor who gave his name as John said that DESK’s dinner service became an invaluable resource after he was laid off from his job in hospitality during the pandemic and couldn’t meet his rent. Now the new drop-in services are making DESK “better and better and better.”
DESK “helped many people get through the pandemic, and it’s still helping them now,” John said.
The drop-in facility is typically staffed with two employees, known as “site specialists,” as well as a few volunteers. For site specialist Angela Lewis, who typically works at DESK’s original Temple Street soup kitchen, the new space is a shift. Though the crowds at each location overlap, she said, the drop-in center is “calmer” and allows her to connect with the visitors she serves.
Werlin noted that one of the new goals for the space is blurring the lines between providing and receiving services. Joan Morrison is a weekly volunteer with DESK. On Wednesday, she was manning the refreshments kiosk, handing out bottles of water, seltzer and iced tea. When she has downtime, Morrison finds a place to sit, chatting with visitors and hearing life stories.
“I do like listening to people talk. That’s what I like about coming here. You never know who’s going to be here and what they’ll talk about,” she said.
Marty Cobern, who was manning the front desk on Monday, said he has seen attendance over the last few weeks grow “tremendously,” with around 30 people frequenting the space daily.
DESK staff members are still working out some of the new building’s kinks. They haven’t been able to turn on the air conditioner yet, reyling on a giant fan to cool visitors. Problems in the basement led the team to temporarily close the bathroom on Monday, leading to some groans.
The second floor is currently unfinished and will be fully open once DESK raises money for and installs an elevator to make the space accessible. Besides hosting a hospital-grade bathroom and conference rooms, it will serve as a flexible work space for the nonprofit’s various partners, which include the Cornell-Scott Hill Health Center and the Sex Workers and Allies Network. DESK’s long-term vision, Werlin said, is to make the State Street facility a centralized hub for the homeless.
“What we’ve found over the years was that people were coming to us for food, for a meal, but because they felt comfortable in our space, they were able to easily connect to other services and build some rapport with social workers and outreach workers. This is us doubling down on that idea.”
These partner groups have previously worked with DESK visitors at their space on Temple Street, and are currently utilizing the first-floor drop-in space. The second floor will allow for more private or sensitive conversations.
“It’s a great resource,” Hill Health nurse practitioner Anna Graham said of the new building. “This is a consistent space where we can follow up on things.”
Meanwhile, the third floor serves as office space for DESK’s growing staff. The previous office, Werlin said, fit just two people crammed into a tiny space. Now, newly-hired project managers and existing staff have a spacious open-concept office.
“Growth is such a good thing!” Werlin said. “We knew that as we were expanding that we would need office space, so this building is great.”
Also added to the team was data analyst Wendy McLeod. DESK has always recorded its daily attendance, but “finally” has a dedicated staff member to interpret that data in a useful way, she said. Looking at the numbers, McLeod said, revealed that the pandemic-induced curbside services DESK added last year actually increased, rather than the volume of visitors served, which could prompt directors to make those programs more permanent.
“What we do is give people the reassurance that they can deny giving us information and still use the service,” McLeod said. “It builds trust, and makes the person more important than the service. It’s all about how we can gather data and be more efficient without stripping away their dignity.”
Dear Friends, Last December, I reported to you on our BIG NEWS: DESK purchased a building to serve as New Haven’s first Downtown Drop-in & Resource Center.
Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to share our plans in a more in-depth manner through Zoom presentations, media coverage, and tours onsite. I’ve received valuable feedback and advice from many of you across the community, and we at DESK are so appreciative.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, our staff have been working unbelievably hard. I won’t sugarcoat it: This was the most difficult winter in our 35-year history. Not only did our volunteers and staff serve outside in below-freezing temperatures and repeated snow-storms, but we took on new initiatives to meet the challenges posed by COVID and the economic fallout.
We provided regular meals to those sheltering in hotels and warming centers, we collected, organized, and distributed more clothing and basic needs supplies for people on the street than ever before, and we worked closely with our partners to connect them to health services. (Just this week, we hosted our first vaccination clinic!)
Our people have needed us, and we couldn’t let them down.
At the same time, we’ve been preparing to launch our new Drop-in & Resource Center at 266 State Street. To get this program off the ground, we first relocated our administrative offices to the new building.
Then we conducted renovations on our first-floor drop-in center. And finally, we onboarded five new staff members to oversee, develop, and implement this new program.
The stage is set, and this Monday, we will begin offering drop-in hours at 266 State, where our Guests can get off the street, have a cup of coffee and a snack, access the internet, and get connected to services that can move them beyond homelessness.
Monday will be a “soft open” as we get used to the space, the flow of foot-traffic, and the needs of our Guests. Over the coming months, we’ll steadily and strategically expand as resources allow and the needs dictate.
To do this, we’ll need your help.Volunteers are needed to assist staff in distributing food and supplies, keeping the space clean and safe, and generally offering a friendly ear and warm smile (behind a mask!) to our Guests. Sign up online right now, or reach out to our new Program Director, Tina Paolillo, with any questions.
And of course we’ll also need your support to keep the lights on. Make a contribution today to let us know that YOU believe in a compassionate drop-in center that meets people where they are and connects them to services that offer a path out of homelessness. It takes a village.
The following article appeared in the Yale Daily News on March 4, 2021. The original post can be viewed here.
Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen purchases its own building on State Street, with the goal of creating a new central location for homeless services in New Haven.
By Sylvan Lebrun, Staff Reporter
After years of operating out of church basements, Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen is moving into a building of their own on State Street, aiming to create a centralized location for homeless services in New Haven.
Despite logistical difficulties of fundraising during the pandemic, DESK purchased their new space in early December 2020. This was the culmination of a strategic planning process that began two years earlier. While they currently offer nightly meals in the basement of the Parish House of the Central Church on the Green, DESK plans to incrementally expand their hours and offerings at their independent State Street location. Deepening their current partnerships with other local organizations, DESK plans to create a comprehensive drop-in space and resource center for unhoused individuals. Until DESK has fully transitioned to its new location, which does not yet have a kitchen, the organization will continue using its current Temple Street location for dining operations.
“It had become clear that there were a lot of holes in the network of services for people experiencing homelessness,” said Steve Werlin, executive director of DESK. “So we began having some discussions with our partners, with our clients … and we realized that what our folks really needed was a place where they could access our services more readily, on their own time, on their own terms.”
Since 2017, DESK has worked to broaden access to resources for homeless individuals by collaborating with other local human services providers. The current DESK dining room, in a borrowed church facility on 311 Temple St., is open one hour a day for dinner. Health care workers, street psychiatrists and case managers gather in the dining room to provide aid on site.
DESK’s current list of partner organizations includes Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, Connecticut Mental Health Center, United Way of Greater New Haven, Liberty Community Services and Columbus House.
“We have great homelessness service providers in New Haven and we’re not looking to reinvent the wheel, we’re not looking to duplicate services,” Werlin told the News.
Columbus House, a local nonprofit dedicated to services for people experiencing homelessness, sends its outreach and engagement workers to the DESK dining room. According to Columbus House CEO Margaret Middleton, its case managers meet with clients at DESK’s evening meals and connect them with resources for long-term planning.
Middleton told the News that she believes DESK’s new location will better facilitate these important conversations, using designated meeting spaces that allow for greater privacy.
“The current location doesn’t have any of that additional space … devoted specifically to outside providers or for doing different types of meetings,” said Middleton.
One of DESK’s major goals in designing its new location is to connect unhoused individuals with as many needed services as possible under one roof, Werlin said.
The first floor will be a dining room with a drop-in center providing basic needs such as food, clothing, toiletries and harm reduction supplies. The second floor will be a resource center with what Werlin calls “next-level services.” Plans for that floor include a clinic for Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center’s street medicine team and office spaces for mental health specialists, outreach workers and case managers from other partner organizations.
“One of the biggest problems facing people in need in New Haven is you have to go to five or six different places to try to get support,” Scott McLean, president of DESK’s board of directors, said. “Go to a soup kitchen and you go to a social worker, then you have to go to a health clinic, then you have to go to the state. That’s like a full-time job, you know. The full-time job of being poor is part of why poverty is so unjust.”
According to McLean, DESK’s board of directors saw the move to State Street as a “launch point” for collaborating with partners to provide comprehensive homeless services and combat this injustice.
The construction on the 266 State St. building, which had a past life as a dog grooming salon, began soon after DESK’s purchase of the building in December. The space was chosen for its physical accessibility, as a street-level building close to downtown New Haven.
However, to make this space truly accessible, a series of longer-term construction projects will be necessary, according to Werlin. DESK is currently fundraising for “extensive renovations” on the building, including installing an elevator and a medical-grade heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. He expects that these will be carried out over the next fiscal year.
Within the next month, DESK plans to open with limited capacity as a drop-in space from 1 to 4 p.m., six days a week. The organization plans to provide activities and a space to get out of the harsh weather, before directing clients to their Temple Street location for dinner.
“We’re going to steadily increase those hours,” Werlin said. “And then the hope is that when we get into the hottest months when we’re really needing some cooling spaces, we’ll be operating at full capacity … during the hottest hours of the day.”
The strategic planning process that led to DESK’s decision to move lasted from 2018 to early 2019. Their initial plan was simply to rent a space and sign a long-term lease — property ownership was not on the table at the time.
This all changed when the pandemic caused real estate prices in downtown New Haven to fall dramatically.
“Suddenly we just found ourselves in a position … with property prices the way they were, to actually purchase a building for the first time in our history,” Werlin told the News. “Within two blocks of the [New Haven] Green, right downtown, we’re right where people need us.”
Although COVID-19 guidelines made usual fundraising strategies — like ribbon cuttings and kickoff events — impossible, DESK experienced what McLean called an “extraordinary” increase in donations after the outset of the pandemic.
This support, and lower real estate prices, allowed DESK to make their big move.
“When crisis hit New Haven, we didn’t close up shop and turn away, and we pivoted and we adapted and we moved forward,” Werlin said. “We said to ourselves, now we are in a position to actually make an even bigger splash than we had intended before. Let’s do it. Let’s do something bold.”
In 1987, Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen first began offering meals three nights a week at churches on the New Haven Green.
We’ve got big news to share with you: DESK is moving!
In the last year-and-a-half, our Board, staff, volunteers, partners, and Guests have been taking a long look in the mirror. We’ve put our heads together to consider what isn’t working for homelessness services in New Haven, and we developed a plan that would enable us to address those problems in a way that is collaborative, equitable, and progressive—and in a way that doubles-down on what DESK already does well: food and community.
Food is the cornerstone of what we do, but DESK has always been more than a soup kitchen. We provide a range of basic needs supplies, we offer a forum for outreach workers and healthcare staff to engage, and we help make connections so that those we serve can move beyond homelessness and beyond poverty. We do this as part of a broad, coordinated effort across New Haven, with more partners than we can count.
But it’s time to do even better, and to take the next step. DESK needs to be more accessible. We need to be in a more visible location, still close to Downtown, but street-level and forward-facing. We need to be open much longer hours, so folks can pop in for whatever they need whenever they need it—from a quiet spot to meet with their case manager to a bathroom or a cup of coffee. The people we serve need a “drop-in center,” where they can walk in and access resources, like healthcare, employment, or addiction services, or get assigned to a shelter bed that night. It’s an approach that is as logical as it is bold, and that requires collective impact. DESK will provide the space and the food; our partners will provide the specialized services. And together we will offer something new in our community.
After searching for more than a year, DESK finally found the right location and the right building. Last week, we purchased a modest, three-story building on State Street, two blocks from the New Haven Green.
This is a really big deal for DESK . . . but it’s an even bigger deal for homelessness services in New Haven. And for the people we serve, this will be a game-changer.
We’re not moving quite yet. It will happen in phases, and we’ll still be preparing meals on Temple Street in 2021. Although we intend to launch a lighter version of this new “drop-in and resource center” this winter as a response to seasonal and COVID needs, we will also need to complete renovations throughout the building before we can move in fully. Opening in a new location is both a response to the immediate need and an investment in DESK’s future. As we move forward, we’ll be decisive but strategic: we’ll take our time and do it right.
DESK has always relied on the community for support, and for more than fifteen years, our greatest community support has come from Center Church on the Green. They have graciously provided not only generous space in their Parish House on Temple Street, but also partnership and friendship. They have been our greatest benefactor, and we plan to keep them involved as we enter this new phase.
If the COVID pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that DESK’s volunteers and staff are unquestionably dedicated and fearlessly determined. Throughout this crisis, we have continued to be there for those who are most vulnerable and most in need in our community. And most importantly, we’ve done it safely and responsibly.
So whether it’s responding to an immediate pandemic or planning for the long-term, DESK is always ready to fulfill our mission with a “whatever-it-takes” approach.
* * *
With the exciting news of our imminent move, there will be many questions, I’m sure. In the coming months, I will host a series of “Zoom happy-hours” to offer you additional details and get your input. YOU are part of our community, and so your feedback is critical to our success.
This past year has brought about some big changes for DESK; next year will bring even more. The Coronavirus pandemic has presented unimaginable challenges, but we have consistently turned those challenges into opportunities to be more than what was ever expected of a “soup kitchen.”
And so the question that remains now is: How can YOU help? We will of course need your support throughout this transition. Here’s what to do:
Spread the word. Tell your friends, family, and colleagues about what we’re trying to do. Tell them how DESK is strategizing to ensure that those who are most in need not only have a place to eat, but a place to get the help they need to move to the next level.
Stay involved by volunteering or organizing a drive. Throughout this big transition, we still need to take care of the day-to-day. DESK has always relied on a virtual army of volunteers and supporters in the community, and nothing about that will change.