Bridgeport agencies conduct count of city's homeless population

BRIDGEPORT — The issue of people who are experiencing homelessness in Bridgeport has drawn attention in the past few months, as a population that can sometimes remain below people's consciousness has become more visible.

“They feel like they’re invisible to society,” said Damien Holley, an outreach worker with the nonprofit agency Operation Hope of Fairfield who previously had experienced homelessness about eight years ago.

Holley has been spending his time interacting with residents who are homeless, and gathering information to help them get housing, such as identification and Social Security numbers, every weekday as part of an annual nationwide count. Typically, the "Point-In-Time" count makes use of volunteers to count sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. But since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the count has been conducted by nonprofit workers, who upload their count to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Cheryl Bell, head of housing for the Recovery Network of Programs, which operates the Prospect House shelter, said she misses the old way of volunteers in Bridgeport canvassing and counting the unhoused population.

“It was also an opportunity to bring awareness to the community,” Bell said. 

But Holley said the new process has been effective.

“They know me,” Holley said. “Volunteers ... they gotta get comfortable. This isn’t easy to do.” 

While numbers from the 2022 count are not yet available, the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness 2021 report showed 239 people in Bridgeport were homeless, either staying in an emergency shelter or temporary housing. That represents about five more people than the 2020 count.

The count sets a benchmark of the number of people who are homeless in the area, and helps determine what programs and services get federal funding. Last month, nonprofits addressing homelessness in Bridgeport called on Connecticut legislators to allocate annual funding for emergency shelters in the state.

On Tuesday afternoon, Holley was at the Bridgeport train station, striking up conversations with residents in the area that are unhoused. He also spoke with Metro-North workers, who said the station tended to see an influx of people who are homeless after 7 p.m.

When Holley interacts with people during the count, he doesn't carry any belongings to avoid arousing suspicion. He starts conversations by explaining his organization's work serving people who are homeless. Then, he asks if they know anyone who needs those services to avoid mistakenly identifying someone as homeless.

If those he is speaking with still don't feel comfortable, he offers his phone number.

“And maybe if you change your mind, let me know — my door is always open for you,” Holley said of his interactions with some homeless residents.

For those who repeatedly refuse help, Holley simply checks on them with a smile and some small talk. For him, it’s important to just acknowledge their humanity and check on their wellbeing. 

Jeffrey Blackman, 60, was among those Holley counted at the Bridgeport station. Although he’s previously sought shelter at Prospect House, he prefers to live in a tent. Having struggled with drug addiction for more than 10 years, he said, he’s been sober since last summer and worries about relapsing. 

“I come down here because this is a safe haven. My neighborhoods are not. They’re triggers,” Blackman said. 

Andy.Field@hearstctmedia.com

Twitter:@AndyTsubasaF