NEW HAVEN — The health guidelines have been clear: stay safe, stay home.

But those without homes have few options to shelter-in-place if they’re not in a crowded shelter or one of the highest risk residents.

Mark Colville, who founded Amistad Catholic Worker House with his wife, Luz Catarineau-Colville, has asked Mayor Justin Elicker to designate a building where people experiencing homelessness can shelter-in-place, or to ask Yale University to open its doors.

“No amount of social work can hide what this pandemic lays bare: there is a permanent underclass of people dwelling in our nation’s cities who have no way to safely comply with the directive to shelter in place and maintain social distance,” Colville wrote in his letter to Elicker.

“They simply have no place to stay, and nowhere to store personal supplies for daily survival,” Colville told Elicker. “To live, they have to keep moving.”

The city plans to use Career High School to house homeless people who are diagnosed with COVID-19, and 84 people are in hotels. But beyond shelters, people the homeless could be moving from place to place.

Elicker said Monday the city is coming up with a strategy to serve three different categories of homeless during the pandemic: those diagnosed with the virus, those who may have been exposed but are asymptomatic, and those who don’t have reason to believe they’ve had contact and apparently do not have the coronavirus.

For those in shelters, staying six feet away from another person is impossible, so those at highest risk for catching the virus have been moved to hotels, he said.

On Saturday, the state Department of Public Health directed state, local and private sector partners to transition homeless populations into alternative, less congested housing so that people could properly socially distance.

From a health perspective, Elicker said opening a facility for the last group that as not been exposed to the virus would be challenging because they don’t want people congregating, and the state has ordered all municipalities to decompress homeless shelters and that prevents the formation of new shelters.

“We were considering another site where they could stay under one roof and address social distancing, but because the state has ordered we decompress, we can’t do that anymore,” Elicker said.

In instances where a member of a group has tested positive for COVID-19 but others are asymptomatic, Elicker wants them to self-isolate separately, which is why the city wants additional hotel rooms made available.

Elicker said they’re also considering asking universities about making dorms available.

“For immediate emergency, there’s a whole campus and it seems like the perfect place to lock down and shelter in place,” Colville said. “I’m not saying we should open the whole campus, but you’re telling me you can’t find one building?”

For 25 years Colville and his wife have opened their home on Rosette Street to serve breakfast and lunch for anyone in need, working closely with people living without homes. But they can only take in a few people at a time.

“In this life and death emergency, with all of Yale’s dorms sitting empty and hundreds of vacant apartments, it seems absurd that we are still feeding, providing showers and laundry services every day to people who are coming from tents, vacant buildings, park benches and bus shelters scattered all across this city and its surrounding towns,” Colville said in his letter.

In Colville’s experience, there’s no shortage of individuals who are willing to make sacrifices to help those in need, but when it comes to institutions helping, “we see them fall down and we seem to exempt them in times like these unnecessarily,” he said.

Additionally, the institutions that are supposed to remedy these situations have had their funding cut, he said.

Elicker said he has long admired the work Colville does, and agrees with the goal Colville has laid out, but some logistic and public health concerns make the execution of it a challenge.

Colville said he’s been in full agreement with Elicker’s orders thus far to protect the city from the full force of the pandemic, but what the city needs is for it to tell its homeless where they can ride it out.

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, people experiencing homelessness have grappled with having a place to remain because there’s no place outside a shelter they’re allow to stay put, he said.

Colville said a city’s health often is measured in the number of visible homeless people on the streets, so institutions do what they can to make those homeless less visible by getting them off park benches and sidewalks.

But what they really need is to be remembered and cared for, he said.

“We don’t have a healthy society because we’re not protecting the most vulnerable,” Colville said. “If this pandemic can do anything positive, it can teach us that we need to think differently.”

In the long-term, Colville said he wants to see the city name a space where those without a home can peacefully exist without being criminalized, and, in this emergency, what the city needs is to protect its homeless residents from moving around, acting as a public health threat to themselves and others.

Yale and other area universities have opened housing for first responders to self-isolate away from their homes.

Colville Letter by Helen Bennett on Scribd

mdignan@hearstmediact.com