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.

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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.

In the News: SNAP/WIC, Narcan, & Student Homelessness

In the News: SNAP/WIC, Narcan, & Student Homelessness

  1. Agriculture secretary says government shutdown would impact department’s programs: How will the looming government shutdown affect those who receive SNAP and WIC?  (Short answer: It could be catastrophic for families who depend on these programs.)
  2. Maine’s housing crisis contributes to a big increase in student homelessness Can short-term financial assistance through schools help families avoid eviction and homelessness?  (Short answer: Yes! Direct and immediate financial assistance has been proven to keep people housed.)
  3. An overdose drug is finally over-the-counter. Is that enough to stop the death toll?  Narcan is now available over-the-counter — but how accessible is it really to those who need it now?  (Short answer: With prices as high as $72 per box, Narcan is still unattainable from those most at risk of a deadly overdose.)