Raising a roof for unhoused people

Residents and volunteers setting up the Rosette Village tiny homes.

(Photo: Courtesy of Rosette Villages)

Unhoused Community Resists Government Tear-Down Orders

“This can happen anywhere, and we are showing an example of how things can be different.”

One morning last January, 69 year-old Kathleen McKenzie, who goes by the name Gypsy, woke up on the steps of a New Haven, Connecticut church, her sleeping bag completely covered in snow. McKenzie considers herself lucky that she survived the night.

That same winter, Christina Del Santo spent most of her nights in New Haven drop-in shelters, perpetually wary of the often-intoxicated men surrounding her. Del Santo had been attacked in shelter settings before, so she tried to get some sleep with her shoes and coat on and the proverbial one eye open. Each morning at 6:15AM, shelter officials ushered her and the other unhoused people back out into the cold.

McKenzie and Del Santo are among the millions of Americans whose incomes are too low to afford market-rate rent, yet also among the three of every four who are eligible for federal housing subsidies but don’t receive them. Over 30,000 people sit on New Haven’s subsidized housing waiting list. For many of these people, there seem to be only two options: exposure to the elements by sleeping outdoors, or risking the danger and indignities that often come with congregate shelters.

Yet, in New Haven as in dozens of other U.S. cities, a third option has emerged. During the early months of the Covid pandemic in 2020, the shuttering of shelters contributed to the growth of large encampments, often established on public land. The largest New Haven encampment, called “Tent City” by its residents, was located at a park alongside the West River.

Conditions in Tent City were far from ideal, but the residents looked after each other’s needs and helped keep everyone safe. For a few years, local officials left the residents alone. But last March, the city sent in a backhoe, trucks, and dozens of police officers to destroy the encampments and force all the residents out.

New Haven mayor Justin Elicker justified the evictions and destruction on health and safety grounds. The residents found the rationale ironic, given that a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that displacement of unhoused people from encampments actually exacerbates health crises. The night after the New Haven tent city was bulldozed, one of the evicted residents died after a car in which he was sleeping caught fire.

With the city providing bulldozers but not housing, longtime New Haven residents Mark and Luz Catarineau Colville felt they needed to act. Thirty years ago, the Colvilles founded the Amistad Catholic Worker community in New Haven. The Catholic Worker movement, created by Dorothy Day during the Great Depression, adheres to a guiding principle of hospitality, especially for the homeless poor. For many years, the Amistad House opened its doors daily for community meals, often shared with New Haven residents living on the streets. The Amistad community also took in a few unhoused people at a time to stay, as many as the house structure allowed.

But when the encampments were destroyed, these longtime practices suddenly did not seem to be enough. “At the common table in the Catholic Worker, we form our own individual and collective conscience about what the times are demanding of us. What is God doing in the world, and how are we being called to respond?” Colville says. “The conclusion is clear: In terms of a New Testament understanding, as long as there are homeless people existing in our community, our work is incomplete.”

So the Colvilles tacked up a sign in the Amistad backyard declaring the area a “human rights zone.” The pronouncement cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ commitment to housing for all, along with the multiple human rights documents that prohibit the criminalization of homelessness. Then they invited people who had been evicted from the encampments to set up their tents in the backyard, and offered daily food and support.

“We realized that we don’t have quote-unquote homeless people in New Haven: we have economic refugees,” Colville says. “These are people who have been excluded from the economy because of jobs that don’t pay living wages, and excluded from the housing market that has become a capitalist venture focused on favoring the rich and the wealthy developers that serve them.”

“We Are Showing How Things Can Be Different”

Among those who came to stay behind the Amistad House were McKenzie and Del Santo. “When I first arrived, I slept almost constantly for three days. I was exhausted and it was the most safe and most stable I had felt in years,” Del Santo says. “This place saved my life, definitely.”

Del Santo makes it clear that she is referring to something more than the limited protection from the elements provided by her backyard tent. Government officials may look at encampments and see only health code violations and shelter needs they believe are better met in institutional settings. But those officials are missing a lot, Del Santo and McKenzie and others insist.

“Encampments can offer community, safety, security, companionship, autonomy, and pooled resources to meet other practical needs,” says the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. “Encampments prevent the need to carry around one’s belongings all day and can offer a stability that overnight shelters cannot. Encampments also allow families to stay together and will accommodate pets. Hence, there are many practical, rational reasons why people would prefer to live in an encampment than stay at a shelter.”

Of all these factors, the residents of what they have named the Rosette Neighborhood Village (Amistad House is located on Rosette Street) emphasize the value of community. They have established a self-governing structure with shared responsibilities, including with the pay-it-forward practice of preparing and serving meals to other unhoused individuals. This past summer, Rosette residents revived a long-dormant community garden on their street.

They also worked with the Colvilles and other supporters to launch a fundraising and friends-raising campaign, culminating on a late October Saturday when nearly a hundred volunteers helped install six tiny homes in the backyard. Now, eight people are living in the tiny homes and about a dozen more are in adjacent tents. Portions of the Amistad House are being renovated to include community kitchen and shower areas for the Rosette Village residents.

But just six days after the tiny homes went up, a cease-and-desist letter arrived from the New Haven City Plan Department. The same local government that bulldozed Tent City is now demanding the tiny homes be removed due to alleged violations of city zoning codes. Colville and Rosette residents are refusing to comply, citing the international human rights law posted onsite, a new state law affirming that homelessness constitutes a public health crisis, and the support of the Rosette neighbors. Housing experts like Jenny Schuetz of the Brookings Institution have long advocated for the relaxation of regulations that block shared housing and temporary structures.

Del Santo, Colville, and others point out that there is a great deal of unused or rarely-used public space in New Haven and beyond that could be used to house unsheltered people. And Rosette Village is showing how it can be done. “This is successful, and we are changing the way people think about the unhoused,” Del Santo says. “This can happen anywhere, and we are showing an example of how things can be different.”

Gypsy McKenzie agrees. The pushback against Rosette Village from city officials continues, but McKenzie decided during a local radio show interview to respond by singing her own adaptation of a Tom Petty classic:

We need housing now
And it ain’t no lie
You can keep on trying to push us around
But we won’t back down.

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