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To Care for a Community

On the top floor of a converted Victorian home, in the heart of New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood, lives the city’s attempt at an alternative model to policing. The old home is peaceful when I visit, its rooms awash in sunlight. Tenants putter from one floor to the next, their footsteps creaking against warm hardwood floors. This is a crisis respite house run by the nonprofit Continuum of Care, which provides refuge and short-term beds for people in crisis. “Some, but not enough,” says John Labieniec, one of multiple co-vice presidents at the organization.

Labieniec’s mild manner and casual dress—sweatshirt, long hair tied back—fit right in as he guides me upstairs to what could be mistaken for an attic bedroom. In this room, a new organization has moved in: Elm City COMPASS, short for “Compassionate Allies Serving Our Streets.” The initiative has been years in the making, envisioned as a clinician- and peer-led alternative to traditional policing in mental health and substance use crises. COMPASS has worked with three hundred and four people since its November 2022 launch (as of March 1), through a mix of responding to 911 calls and conducting proactive outreach.

Although COMPASS’s office has a distinctly cozy and communal feel, New Haven’s biggest institutional forces are at work in this Dwight home. Yale University manages COMPASS in a partnership with the New Haven city government, having secured $3.5 million of city and federal funding to administer the program. Yet, Yale’s name has been largely omitted from the COMPASS rollout.

COMPASS is one of the few initiatives across the country that is tangibly moving toward peer-based alternatives to policing. Yet its collaboration with New Haven police and its integration with some of New Haven’s most entrenched institutions—the city government and Yale University—alienates some long-time harm reduction advocates. COMPASS’s launch then begs the question: can an organization meant to disrupt the policing system still do so in collaboration with mainstream institutional mammoths?

“As bulldozers rolled over the tents that had once housed sixteen people, the COMPASS team members worked to find beds for those who were getting evicted.”

An Alternative to Policing

COMPASS emerged from a time of “multiple pandemics,” Jack Tebes, COMPASS director and Yale Professor of Psychiatry, told me, “one hundreds of years old and one more recent.”

Tebes’ two pandemics—one being centuries of racism and police brutality, and the other being COVID-19 intertwined in the summer of 2020, as masked protestors marched in the streets and called for police abolition in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. In response, the city of New Haven appropriated funds for a civilian crisis response team that would follow a new model of law enforcement and community care, soliciting applications from organizations up for the task. Tebes and his colleagues at Yale’s Consultation Center had long worked on crisis response matters and were selected to spearhead the new initiative.

In the years of planning ahead of COMPASS’s launch, the initiative strove to involve New Haven residents as much as possible. Representatives from the city and Yale conducted focus groups and community forums, ultimately consulting more than two hundred and fifty community members, according to its website. Yale also sub-contracted with Continuum of Care, long established in the world of New Haven crisis response, to provide what Labieniec calls “boots on the ground” for the COMPASS operation. With this collaboration, Labieniec became the coordinator of COMPASS’s crisis response team.

COMPASS was slated to begin in mid-2021, but the launch was delayed over four times as the city struggled to find a subcontractor and finalize its contract with Yale. The city also contended with police and fire unions who wanted to bargain over COMPASS’s plan of operation and the role that police and fire officials would play in its implementation. In August 2022, the police union filed a state labor board complaint saying that the city was going forward with the COMPASS launch without providing the launch plans to police. Ultimately the bargaining was resolved, but it did delay COMPASS’s launch yet again through the later half of 2022.

When the crisis response operation did launch, it did so in the form of a “secondary response” team, one that would only go out on a call if requested by police and fire operations. This ongoing collaboration with police, although temporary, is leaving its mark.

In March, when city officials and police arrived at the West River, off Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, to clear the three-year-old Tent City encampment, COMPASS’s signature green jackets were present alongside them. As bulldozers rolled over the tents that had once housed sixteen people, the COMPASS team members worked to find beds for those who were getting evicted. One Tent City resident, Barry Lawson, told The New Haven Register: “I was going to get arrested, but then I got offered a place [to stay] on Edgewood” by the COMPASS team.

Despite the care COMPASS provided, in moments like the Tent City clearing, said housing advocate Mark Colville, “the roles get a little weird.” Colville’s organization, Amistad Catholic Worker, is based nearby in The Hill neighborhood and helped organize and sustain Tent City for years. He believes that COMPASS’s alignment with the city during the mass eviction—even while they were just administering care to the evicted— exemplifies the danger of a harm reduction organization that works alongside police and city government. “What I saw [during the Tent City clearing] was people from COMPASS accompanied by police in uniform and with guns. So to me, that sort of invalidates the whole thing,” Colville explained to me over the phone.

The front of Amistad Catholic Worker on Rosette Street.

Colville’s model of community care is different from COMPASS’s, as he lives in a home directly alongside those he works with, including the former residents of Tent City. This generates a horizontal model of care in which neighbors help neighbors—without necessitating the involvement of police.

People who are unhoused from all over the state come to The Hill, Colville says, because “we take care of our own.” Amistad Catholic Worker runs a house to which anyone can come eat, pray, and receive donations. Following the Tent City demolition, they also allow unhoused people to camp in the backyard. The organization’s mission statement reads: “We seek to be a safe haven and a public nonviolent witness in our neighborhood, and always try to blur the distinction between the people who are serving and those being served.”

“That’s what we’re doing here, and we simply need the city to get out of the way and let us show them how to do it,”
Colville emphasized.

At COMPASS, crisis response occurs only after police referral, generating a major departure from Colville’s model. Yet there are aspects of COMPASS that do resemble forms of horizontal community care, such as the involvement of peers on their response teams. Two people from COMPASS respond to crisis calls: a licensed clinician and a peer recovery specialist who has experienced homelessness and/or substance use.

Between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., each two-person COMPASS team can respond to a call in an average of thirteen minutes. When they do, COMPASS peer recovery specialist Nanette Campbell told me over the phone, the clinician will often take the immediate lead on crisis response, while the peer is there to relate to those in crisis and approach them in a more accessible manner than police or clinicians may be able to do.

Campbell is the primary peer on the COMPASS team and has been working in the field of peer crisis response for twenty years. She emphasized the importance of having a peer respond to a crisis, rather than just a clinician or an armed force:

“It’s just different walks of life, and [police] don’t know what we know as far as mental health issues, substance issues,” Campbell told me, exhaustion in her voice at the end of her work day. “Me myself, I’ve lived that life. So just knowing about different things and what people are going through and meeting them where they are.”

COMPASS also does proactive outreach to areas that it deems crisis hotspots: “where there are drug overdoses, folks who look like they’re in need, folks who may be congregating during cold winter weather and may need to get to a warming center,” Tebes explained. During these outreach sessions, the two-person team distributes care packages and can respond if they see someone in distress. These efforts tend to be concentrated on the New Haven Green, along a stretch of Ella T. Grasso Boulevard in the Edgewood and West River neighborhoods, and at the end of the Boulevard south of The Hill. All are majority BIPOC and low-income neighborhoods with the exception of the Green, where demographics are affected by its close proximity to Yale.

COMPASS conducts its outreach without any police presence. Yet Colville feels like the ongoing partnership with police—especially given that it is the only way the group responds to crisis calls—keeps COMPASS from being able to help in areas that do not want a police presence.

“I doubt that anyone on my block, except for me, is really aware that [COMPASS] is a thing,” Colville told me with a sigh. “That’s fine, you know, it’s in its infancy. But in this neighborhood…we have a standing policy here, we don’t call the police. So who knows if we will ever see [COMPASS].”

Both Tebes and Labieniec made it clear that this secondary response phase is temporary, and that there are plans for COMPASS to independently respond to crisis calls as soon as this summer. However, COMPASS would still remain a part of the 911 system. Tebes explained that Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP), which runs the 911 dispatch, would direct relevant 911 calls to COMPASS rather than uniformed police. In order to reach that point, however, COMPASS must collect enough data to understand where it would succeed as a solo actor, and with that data, draw up a standard to be used by 911 dispatchers. This data comes with time, and the more COMPASS referrals that come from police and fire officials, the more useful this data can become.

“In New Haven, it was always planned that COMPASS would grow into that [independent role],” Labieniec said. But that process takes time. Labieniec has traveled and met with leaders from Colorado and Iowa’s statewide non-police crisis response systems. And in both cases, “it was a process” to become disentangled from their existing police systems.

“If you’re not in it, you don’t realize how complicated it is,” Labieniec said.

On a later call, I asked him if he was concerned that the current phase of police partnership might alienate communities like Colville’s in The Hill. He responded that it would be impossible to get this project off the ground without collaborating with police. In order to help those in crisis, he believes the project needs to begin—even if it starts with the police.

“I don’t think you can effectively do what everyone is seeking for us to do without collaborating at some extent with everyone. And I think that includes the police,” Labieniec said emphatically. “If we don’t have positive relationships with the police and with the city and with everyone, we’re not going to be as successful for the people that actually need the help.”

Labieniec and Campbell both expressed to me their belief in the ways that COMPASS has helped, and will continue to help, people on the individual level. Campbell described a woman who refers to the team as “her saving angels” after they helped her get clean. Labieniec pointed me to a New Haven Independent story about a woman who COMPASS helped safely relocate off the street.

But COMPASS is not just the two-person response team, nor the house in Dwight. It is also an experiment in policing alternatives that is continuously debated in City Hall and litigated by Yale and city lawyers. And at that macro level, some activists have begun to grow concerned—even those looking past police presence.

Under the Shadow of Yale and the City

Behind COMPASS’s slow, methodical, and data-driven approach to policing alternatives—an approach that frustrates more radical, anti-police advocates like Colville—is Yale and the New Haven government.

Last spring, Yale quietly became a driving force behind the COMPASS project. A publicly available, 36-page contract between Yale and the city shows that, in exchange for over $3.5 million in funding, Yale agreed to set up and run COMPASS for at least three years. More specifically, The Consultation Center at Yale University, which Tebes runs, would subcontract with Continuum of Care to launch the COMPASS team, and would then be able to collect data from the initiative for research purposes. This data includes COMPASS’s clients’ demographics like race, ethnicity, gender identity, and income—all of which Yale collects and shares with New Haven.

The Consultation Center has, for the last forty years, researched best practices for mental health crisis intervention, according to a video on the center’s website. The center partners with external organizations or bases projects off of affiliated faculties’ needs. One of these projects included running a culture and diversity training for the New Haven Police Department.

According to Tebes, Yale has made in-kind contributions, such as new hires and equipment, that will amount to up to $750,000 over the three-year duration of the contract. Continuum of Care has made additional in-kind contributions that will total around three hundred thousand dollars, Tebes said. As COMPASS’s main representative from Yale, Tebes manages the entire budget.

The partnership between the city and Yale, and the lack of publicity surrounding the matter, raised alarm bells for some. In May 2022, when the contract became public, Nichole Roxas and Alice Shen, two former Yale Psychiatry residents published an op-ed in The New Haven Independent titled “COMPASS Critics To City: Be Transparent.” They wrote that “as two community psychiatrists, our patients tell us they do not trust the police in New Haven and, more than that, they do not trust Yale.”

“How did Yale sneak in on the cut? Did the city solicit community input about who would receive the money and how it would be spent? Would reported concerns be addressed?” the pair asked.

When I asked Tebes similar questions, he pointed to COMPASS’s Community Advisory Board as an important check on Yale’s involvement. The board currently contains nineteen New Haven residents from all walks of life, including one unhoused person. It meets four times a year in addition to separate small-group meetings and comes to decisions via group consensus on policies ranging from maintenance of the COMPASS website to what community resources it should provide. These meetings, according to Tebes, also ensure that Yale does not make any unilateral policy changes.

“It is the university and the city government that are sort of colluding in promoting this myth of scarcity,”

“We begin with humility, listening to community members, sharing any credit, centering our community, not centering Yale or ourselves,” Tebes added.

Faced with those same questions in the COMPASS office, Labieniec thought for a moment, and then quietly shared that he has not seen COMPASS’s affiliation with Yale as an alienating force when COMPASS helps out in the community. “There’s been nothing but warm, welcoming, positive excitement,” he said. “I personally have not seen anything, and I’m very involved.” Labieniec oversees the team every day, and occasionally accompanies them on calls.

Colville would say otherwise. In his opinion, by taking up a huge amount of city land and then refusing to use their forty-two billion dollar endowment to help the citizens they displace, Yale has become a catalyst of homelessness and poverty in New Haven, making their sponsorship of COMPASS come across as too little, too late. “It is the university and the city government that are sort of colluding in promoting this myth of scarcity,” Colville said, “as if land and resources are too scarce to take care of the most low-income people among us.”

Unlike Colville, David Agosta, a New Haven disability rights activist and former member of COMPASS’s Community Advisory Board, takes no issue with Yale’s involvement in COMPASS. “We recognize that Yale has the smartest people in the world,” he said. “When they do something right, they do it right.”

Yet Agosta recently resigned from the board due to frustration with a different partnering institution: the city of New Haven. Although he repeatedly expressed his admiration for everyone involved in COMPASS, Agosta said that he could not remain on the board so long as the city refused to provide adequate beds and services for people without housing. He likened the COMPASS project, with the lack of current city resources for unhoused people, as “building a structure without a foundation.”

“It’s not about COMPASS; it’s that the mayor has not done his part to allow COMPASS to succeed. That’s why I resigned,” Agosta said. “If you talk to the folks there, there was evident frustration at the fact that there was no housing. You can’t really talk about it from the inside, so I had to do it from the outside.” Colville also expressed concern at the city’s involvement with the project. Despite everything, he sees COMPASS as “a good concept.” However, he is critical of the current framework of New Haven’s government, and that within it, COMPASS will be unable to turn into the radical alternative to policing that it was originally envisioned to be.

“This happens all the time in New Haven,” he told me. “Is this just another liberal idea that usually tends to fizzle out at some point, especially when the cops start pushing back or when we get the next ‘law and order’ mayor?”

The current contract only guarantees COMPASS’s funding through June 2025, at which point New Haven, Yale, and Continuum of Care will have to renegotiate. A mayoral election is approaching, and as time passes from when public calls for policing alternatives had peaked in 2020, it is possible that COMPASS’s funding could dry up.

If it does, Labieniec will not let that mark the end of the initiative. Although Yale and the city of New Haven are large conglomerates, whose whims could change when it’s time to renew the contract in 2025, Continuum of Care is still a grassroots organization, and it is committed to COMPASS for the long run. Labieniec told me that he has already looked into alternative grants that could keep COMPASS up and running, should New Haven or Yale step out of the picture.

“Our agency is invested in this,” he said.

A solely nonprofit version of COMPASS, without the financial backing of the city or the data-driven work of Yale, might look radically different. A non-Yale, non-governmental COMPASS would be missing a significant and consistent source of funding, the guidance of a city-run advisory board, and the data-driven operational approach that Labieniec says could not happen without the help of Yale. But it might not have the same incentives to work closely with police, and could instead call directly on the city to provide more housing services and beds, as Agosta wants. Meanwhile, there would be a greater emphasis on Continuum of Care’s horizontal modes of aid, including the peer response team and the location of their respite centers.. This is the version of COMPASS that resembles a radical nonprofit organization—the version that is on full display in the Dwight attic office.

The side of COMPASS’ headquarters.

Just the Beginning?

Still shy of the six-month mark, COMPASS is only beginning its work, as Tebes was quick to point out. COMPASS teams still only respond to crises during the daytime, and they still act only as a secondary response for 911 calls, behind police and fire officials. Both of these are on a timeline to change by the end of the summer. And with that time passing, Labieniec and Tebes both said, collaborations should continue to grow between COMPASS and the myriad harm reduction and homelessness organizations that exist in New Haven.

“We want to create the structure that this will be able to be going on for years to come,” Tebes said. “It’s very rewarding. It’s difficult, but it’s a good kind of difficult that we all want to do.” But speaking to me from a communal home in The Hill, rather than a Yale office, Colville’s doubts remain unassuaged. “Until [Yale and the city government] change their policies, I don’t see how they can be part of the solution,” said Colville. “…in terms of what their role should be, they should get the hell out of the way.”

—Amelia Davidson is a junior in Pauli Murray College.

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