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

by | Jun 19, 2024 | Drop-in Center, Homelessness, Hunger, In the News

Laura Glesby reporting:

Two lines that never meet form around lunchtime on one Wooster Square block: one for Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen’s drop-in center, the other for the world-famous Sally’s pizzeria.

One line on Friday led to patriotic donuts, Cheetos, and bottles of iced tea distributed at no cost to the drop-in center’s clients. The Sally’s line led to draft beer and $17+ pizza (often ordered plain, to appease the kids).

Talk of ghosts and road trip traffic, favorite toppings and spots for free showers, family visits and family estrangements filled the two establishments.

Sally’s and the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK) anchor a neighborhood marked by larger lines: the historic and tourist-attracting Italian restaurants on Wooster Street, the string of luxury apartment buildings along Olive Street, and the series of social service organizations that run down Grand Avenue.

Photos by Laura Glesby

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.


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