Milford creates group to find answers to homeless population near library
An increase in the number of homeless people in and around the Milford Public Library has prompted the creation of a group to see what can be done to help.
Patrons of the library reported a man camped out under the overhang at the rear entrance to the library, a tent pitched in Wilcox Park behind the library and a person who appeared to be asleep in a sleeping bag under the Fowler Pavilion, all within the past month or two.
One resident said the increase in visibly homeless people has made people hesitant to use the library book drop at night or let their older children go to the library without adult supervision.
“I understand their concern and worry that people are being deterred from using the library,” said Milford Library Director Chris Angeli. “At this point, we have had no reports of disrespect or safety issues towards patrons using the library.”
Angeli said she has noticed an increase in the number of people who appear to be homeless in and around the library but said it wasn’t a large number — perhaps four, and they’ve proven respectful, have moved when asked and one man even offered to clean up cigarette butts under the pavilion.
But she has gotten comments from patrons who say they are hesitant to use the library’s back entrance.
The people who work regularly with the homeless say they understand the concerns, but they also caution that homeless people have rights and should be treated with compassion.
Beth El Center Director Jennifer Paradis is working with the mayor’s office, local police, health officials, the fire department, Bridges Healthcare and the library staff to find some solutions.
“In some ways, people came to the table because it became more visible,” Paradis said.
Outreach workers are going 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 past 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 percent increase in the unsheltered population from 2017 to 2018, although the increase could be because of a change in the way officials count the homeless.
“What we’re seeing in Milford is a reflection of that,” Paradis said.
Long term, however, Paradis said, Connecticut has seen a decrease in homelessness.
In January, there were about 20 homeless people living in Milford, according to a count done at the beginning of the year.
The Point In Time Count, held under the direction of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, is “a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night in January,” according to HUD’s webside.
The year before the number was 26, said former Beth-El Director Toni Dolan, who helped participate in the January count. 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 when it comes to accommodating or helping homeless people, according to city officials. Police Chief Keith Mello said “homelessness is not a crime,” and also noted the police have put additional resources downtown, including a bike patrol.
The city attorney pointed out “they have rights too,” and said 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 ball fields behind it were recently named the city’s 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.”