Many New Haven residents choose to risk it on the streets rather than sleep in shelters.
There’s a side to New Haven that comes alive in the quiet of night, while most people in the city are dreaming. The city’s animal residents wake up and wander through the darkness: Families of rabbits. Colonies of stray cats. Packs of coyotes and deer.
Scott Cadwell knows this side of the city better than most. He has lived in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood for the past four years, and he often doesn’t sleep through the night. His home, beneath a bridge in the Hill, has a ceiling but no walls. The rain and snow can’t reach him, but the rest of the natural world can. Some nights, he watches the creatures dance between fight and flight as they weigh options for survival. He can clearly picture a wild rabbit he once saw by a ravine near his bridge, on a night he had stayed up late to smoke a cigarette. He remembers the rabbit was trembling. After looking around, he spotted the threat: a bobcat about fifty feet away.
Predators can turn into prey, depending on the context. Cadwell has seen clusters of thirty coyotes scuttling atop garbage mounds. The creatures are known for eating small animals and occasionally attacking human beings, but Cadwell likes to say, “They’re more scared of you than you are of them.” One night, according to Cadwell, a coyote darted beneath his bridge. It lay down, shuddering in fear. “There’s gotta be a bigger predator right around here,” Cadwell recalls thinking. When he turned, he saw the silhouette of what looked like a mountain lion slinking by. “I didn’t sleep that night really,” he said with half a laugh.
It’s possible that the mountain lion was really a bobcat, since environmental agencies believe that cougars have gone extinct in Connecticut. But Cadwell is convinced it was a cougar. A former hunter, he claims to have seen mountain lion tracks in the city before.
Cadwell, a 52-year-old white man with a crooked, bony frame, has been homeless for five years. “I’m a survivor,” he said. While he has spent brief stints in homeless shelters, away from the cold, most of the time he is one of the nearly three hundred Connecticut residents living on the streets. He can twist and bend his chronically dislocated left shoulder in nearly any direction; he’s a certified welder, but his shoulder prevents him from finding work. While some can’t fathom why he would choose the outdoors over a shelter, Cadwell doesn’t mind the wildlife that prowls through the city at night. His animal neighbors don’t bother him, and he doesn’t bother them back. “They’re just trying to live out there,” Cadwell said. “Just trying to live.”
Cadwell’s bridge hangs over a set of train tracks, where New Haven borders the town of West Haven. He doesn’t technically live on transit property, but railroad workers sometimes interrogate him regardless. One day in early spring, he said, a maintenance worker began taking photographs of his encampment, without even greeting him. “I need to report this,” the worker had said. No one has formally required Cadwell to leave yet, but the thought of his image stored in a stranger’s phone bothered him.
Cadwell is no stranger to encounters like these, in which people who do not ask his name pressure him to take his things and go. One Thanksgiving, he and his mother wandered into West Haven to watch the boats docking at the Long Island Sound. A police officer approached them and asked what they were doing, where they were from. When Cadwell mentioned he was from New Haven, he recalls the cop replying: “This is what I want you to do: get in that car and go back to New Haven. If I see your fucking ass over that bridge again, you’ll get arrested and go to jail.” Cadwell and his mom had not been breaking any laws. They had simply been sitting by the water. The pair walked back to New Haven, rattled.
People who live outside, like Cadwell—on park benches, in tents, beneath bridges—often need to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice. In New Haven, police and city officials have historically moved to clear and disperse outdoor encampments. In defense of one such eviction, the city’s homeless services coordinator, Velma George, told the New Haven Independent in 2019 that “we want people to move out of these unsafe conditions to more safe conditions.” Other forced movements, like the West Haven officer’s command to Cadwell and his mother, have been motivated more explicitly by prejudice.
In addition to hostile police interactions, people living on the streets are vulnerable to theft, sexual assault, and the weather. Despite the instability of this life, many unhoused people choose to live outdoors rather than in a shelter. Cadwell once stayed in Emergency Shelter Management Services, a notoriously derelict establishment known as the “Grand Avenue Shelter.” The shelter houses seventy-five people in a room with rows and rows of orange-blanketed cots. As documented in the New Haven Independent, the shelter operates within a one-story building that garnered multiple allegations of mold and fleas around when Cadwell lived there between 2014 and 2017. In theory, no one is allowed to be intoxicated at the Grand Avenue Shelter, but according to Cadwell, that wasn’t the case when he stayed there five years ago. Cadwell himself is addicted to crack cocaine. Still, the atmosphere bothered him. The shelter was “the nastiest place I think I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “I got disgusted.” He decided to leave, and eventually found his spot by the railroad, under the bridge.
The shelter system does not fit the needs of everyone without a permanent place to live. Most homeless shelters for single adults, like Grand Avenue, are communal spaces that offer little opportunity for solitude. They are also intensely regulated. Shelters generally check for drugs and alcohol at the door, and some perform drug tests on clients, compounding the difficulties of finding a place to sleep for people living with addiction. They impose stringent curfews and often close down during the daytime, requiring residents to enter and leave according to a uniform and preset schedule. Many shelters limit the amount of consecutive days that a client is allowed to sleep there.
“We don’t acknowledge the fact that there is a whole subset of people who are homeless that either cannot or will not comply with the rules of a shelter,” said Mark Colville, a white-haired homeless rights’ activist with a full-throated voice. Colville co-runs the Amistad Catholic Worker house on the Hill’s Rosette Street, which offers food and other resources for those living in poverty. “What you do when you walk into a shelter is the same thing you do when you walk into a jail,” Colville said. “You give up your freedom, you give up your privacy, and most importantly, you give up your agency.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in New Haven in March 2020, the city’s homeless shelters underwent a radical change. At first, they turned more and more people away, in an effort to “de-densify” and enable social distancing. As public health officials urged residents to “shelter-in-place,” those without a place in which to shelter heard no answers about where they could go.
By then, all the tourists had abandoned town, leaving the city full of empty guest rooms. So the city’s Community Services Department decided to rent newfound space from a handful of local hotels and motels to serve as expansion sites for shelters. Shelter clients relocated, two to a room, to establishments mostly on the outskirts of the city, like Best Western and the Regal Inn.
Just under a year after the program’s start in March 2020, some people were still waiting for a hotel room. Jeff, who decided to share only his first name, was living outdoors in March 2021—“here and there,” as he put it. He wanted, more than anything, to find a place to stay inside. When he first heard rumors that the city of New Haven was going to open up hotel rooms for unhoused city residents during the pandemic, he didn’t believe it. “Like, really, you’re gonna give me a hotel room?” he recalled thinking. “It just seemed too good to be true.”
For many homeless individuals in the city, including Cadwell, the promise of a hotel room took months to materialize. Jeff managed to get on the waitlist for a hotel room in December of 2020. Three months later, he had still not secured one.
Emmett, a 50-year-old event producer-turned-filmmaker who asked to use a pseudonym, had been all right with sleeping outdoors in an encampment for most of the pandemic—until the cold came. As winter crept over New Haven, he accumulated piles and piles of blankets inside his tent, but still shivered at night. While Emmett heard that every hotel room was full in December, rumors trickled throughout the city that the hotels were like a revolving door—that people were getting kicked out all the time, especially for drug-related violations. In January, Emmett received a call that a room had become available. To accept it, he simply had to show up.
Emmett is a man constantly in motion. He once worked as a pop-up nightclub organizer, traveling across the country and renting out event spaces for a handful of nights at a time. Throughout his first several months at the hotel when he was unemployed, Emmett would take a series of buses across New Haven each day, traveling between potential job opportunities in film and event staging, as well as stores he likes to patronize and neighborhoods he simply likes to walk in. When we spoke last spring, he sat on a wooden fence in an East Rock parking lot, carrying a leather cross-body bag and wearing a lanyard from his high school honors society back in California. He is used to coming and going from place to place, from bed to bed, when a new opportunity comes his way. So Emmett arrived at the hotel the day he received the call from the state’s centralized resource intake center, 2-1-1, in New Haven’s Long Wharf neighborhood.
New Haven Village Suites is right by the highway, in a part of the city known for its big box stores, food trucks, and parking lots. Emmett and his roommate shared a microwave and stove, a television, and a bathroom to themselves. In the hotel, “I could get up, I could shower, and I could go to work. That’s valuable to me,” Emmett said. “There’s a freezer there. I could keep cold food.”
In hotel rooms, clients can secure far more privacy and personal space than at the majority of the city’s crowded shelters. But they aren’t quite treated like regular hotel guests. They remain subject to the same rules, surveillance, and disciplinary consequences of a homeless shelter. At random, and sometimes without warning, shelter employees working at the hotel would knock on his door to do a room inspection, searching for contraband. They were “casual,” Emmett said. “If you don’t argue and all that shit, they just come in and go.” He didn’t mind these inspections “too much,” he said. He never expected to move in with his privacy fully intact. “You either utilize the service or you don’t.”
Emmett mostly kept to himself in the hotel room. He wasn’t there to make friends. “They’re not gonna end up paying your bills,” he said. If there’s one thing Emmett learned from years of couch-surfing and tent-sleeping, it’s that “nobody’s ever gonna pay for your car, put gas in your tank, pay the lease on your house,” he said. “You must always spread your wings and move away from people, no matter how good they are, or nice they are, or friendly.”
After roaming around the city on his job search, Emmett would usually go to the store to pick up something to eat. He loved barbecue food, and he developed a recent habit of mixing lemon iced tea-flavored powder into his water. After eating, he would return to the hotel, checking his email and text messages. Then, he would switch on the TV.
Emmett didn’t often remember the names of the films he watched alone in his hotel room at night. The particular stories weren’t as important to him as the way those stories are told. He isn’t the kind of person to switch on the television simply to escape into someone else’s narrative. Instead, he took note of each movie’s production strategies. He digested the lighting, the camera’s motion, the rhythm of the dialogue. He tried to measure the gaps between what a director might have envisioned and what the film turned out to be.
After the movie was done, he would shower. Sleep. Wake up in the morning. Eat a bowl of cereal. Then, he would leave to look for work again. Emmett carried a stack of three-page resumes nearly everywhere he went, to hand out to prospective employers. In a letter on the final page, he wrote, “I plan to be available whenever the offer may become valuable for you. I shall respond upon notice at any time.”
He took his desire to find a job more seriously than any other commitment; in a few months, he would go on to find work at a local steakhouse and as a personal assistant. “The person who has the company with the job is the most important person to me,” he said. “I know there’s bigger, better, brighter days out there. I just can’t let it get out of my mind or my sensibility.” His left knee trembled as he spoke, as if preparing to resume walking again at any moment.
Cadwell often sits inside the front yard tent at the Amistad Catholic Worker, the free kitchen and gathering place that Colville and his wife Luz Catarineau have run for decades out of their own home. Cadwell lingers for hours. He likes to tell stories about his family. He calls his mom, who lives in senior housing in the town of Branford, every day. “She’s my everything,” he said in March. “My best friend.” One day when he was 25, he recalled, his mother came to him, crying. He’d been raised as an only child, but his mom revealed that morning that he had a biological sister two years older than him, who had been given up for adoption. He met his sister for the first time in 2005. Every so often, she comes to visit. “We’re close, but not as close as I’d like us to be,” Cadwell said.
His sister works in the Life Insurance industry. “She does really well for herself,” Cadwell said inside the Amistad Catholic Worker tent, as he ate from a paper plate of rice and sausage. “I’m proud of her.” She works remotely in a “beautiful” house on the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border. She cares for a number of pet spaniels and horses. “She’s got a trailer for the horses, and it’s got air-conditioning and everything.”
After living outside for five years, Cadwell decided to sign up for a hotel room one frigid December day. Months later in March, he was still on the waitlist. (When I tried to reach him again in September, his cell number redirected to someone else’s line.) “I respect what they’re doing with the hotel beds,” he said. A hotel room, he knew, would pose its own challenges. He’d heard of dozens of people getting thrown out for drug use. The curfews, the searches, the structure—it would all be unfamiliar for Cadwell, and probably difficult. “It would be hard for someone like me to adjust.” But it was freezing out, so he signed up anyway.
Laura Glesby is a senior in Timothy Dwight College and a former Editor-in-Chief of The New Journal.