City reacts to increase in homeless population near library

An increase in the number of homeless people in and around the Milford Public Library has prompted the creation of what Beth El Center Director Jennifer Paradis calls a work group to try to address their needs.

In recent months a man was camped out under the overhang at the rear entrance to the library, and a tent is pitched in Wilcox Park, behind the library. One library patron said he has also seen a person appearing to sleep in a sleeping bag under the Fowler Pavilion.

One resident said this increase in visibly homeless people has made some residents hesitant to use the library book drop at night or let their older children go to the library without adult supervision.

The people who work regularly with the homeless say they understand the concerns, but they also caution that homeless people have rights too and have to be treated with compassion.

Milford Library Director Chris Angeli might not be a city official one would normally consider an authority on the homeless, but since people without homes often spend their daytime hours at the library, Angeli is certainly familiar with the situation.

She said there has been an increase in the number of people without homes in and around the library — not a huge number, maybe four people. But she’s gotten comments from patrons who say they are hesitant to use the back entrance of the library.

Angeli points out that the people using the Fowler Park area to sleep have not created problems that she is aware of. She said they have been respectful, have moved when asked, and one man even offered to clean up cigarette butts under the pavilion.

But she understands the perception and the concern.

“I understand their concern and worry that people are being deterred from using the library,” Angeli said. “At this point we have had no reports of disrespect or safety issues towards patrons using the library.”

Paradis understands the concern, too, and  is working with the mayor’s office, local police, health officials, the fire department, Bridges Healthcare and the library staff to address the issue.

“In some ways people came to the table because it became more visible,” Paradis said, suggesting that the more visible homeless created an avenue for finding solutions.

Outreach workers are going right into the library two days a week now to offer services and gather information to help the homeless.

Paradis said one Beth-El staff member was reassigned from an administrative position to outreach and engagement. The person goes to the library with a laptop.

“Some people won’t come in and ask for assistance,” Paradis said.

But, she said, they are sometimes willing to engage on their own turf.

In the last three months, outreach workers have gone not only to the library to talk to the homeless, but also to encampments around town.

Paradis said the efforts are starting to produce some results.

“We know these are very complex folks,” Paradis said, calling them a “vulnerable population.”

She and City Attorney Jon Berchem pointed out that an increase in the homeless population is by no means just a Milford problem.

“It’s a big issue in New Haven,” Berchem said, and Paradis said the greater New Haven area saw a 113% increase in the unsheltered population from 2017 to 2018. That increase could be due to a change in the way officials count the homeless, however.

“What we’re seeing in Milford is a reflection of that,” Paradis said.

Longterm, however, Paradis said Connecticut has seen a decrease in homelessness.

Counting the homeless

In January, there were about 20 homeless people living in Milford, according to a count done at the beginning of the year.
The count was part of the Point In Time (PIT) Count under the direction of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said former Beth-El Director Toni Dolan at the time of the count.
According to a HUD website, it is “a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night in January.”
The year before the number was 26, and while that might suggest six people found housing, it more likely means the people moved into other communities, Dolan said.

There are no easy solutions, according to city officials. Police Chief Keith Mello, for example, said “homelessness is not a crime,” and also noted the police have put additional resources downtown, including a bike patrol.

The city attorney said “they have rights too,” referring to people who are homeless, and suggested that those rights might sometimes seem to compete with the rights of other citizens and their use of city amenities, like the library and the parks.

The library and the ballfields behind it were recently named a city park, Fowler Park, and while the increase in homeless people was not the reason for the designation, Paradis said the park designation does give officials more teeth when addressing the homeless.

“It’s another tool,” said Paradis, adding that if someone points out that the park closes at 9 p.m. one of the unsheltered people there might be more likely to move somewhere else.

But, she said, the intent isn’t just to move people somewhere else in the cold, but to help them.

“We don’t want to criminalize these people,” Paradis said. “That wasn’t the intent.”