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A housing activist opens up his backyard to unhoused people; they say it's improving their health

Activist Mark Colville speaks on a megaphone, calling for New Haven to allow for a “tent city” to stand in the West River Memorial Park on March 16, 2023. “If you enforce laws that don’t begin with people’s human rights — these laws begin with budgets and liabilities — those are not legitimate law,” he said.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Activist Mark Colville speaks on a megaphone, calling for New Haven to allow for a “tent city” to stand in the West River Memorial Park on March 16, 2023. “If you enforce laws that don’t begin with people’s human rights — these laws begin with budgets and liabilities — those are not legitimate law,” he said.

In March, the city of New Haven evicted people from public land — what was called “Tent City.” But unhoused people don’t just disappear; they pack up what’s left of their belongings and go someplace else. And for some, the displacement can be fatal. Now, a new housing model, Rosette Village — created in response to the evictions and rising overall homelessness — is showing promise in Connecticut.

Under the Ella Grasso Boulevard overpass, trains roared by a small encampment of unhoused people. Used syringes and piles of trash were everywhere.

Victor Vivar, who had been living in a tent less than half a mile away, had also been forcibly evicted from another tent community. He was killed by a train in February this year when he reportedly had been trying to make his way to this encampment.

“This is where that unfortunate incident happened,” said Mark Colville, Vivar’s friend and a housing activist, who pointed to a spot next to a discarded sanitary napkin. “These evictions, particularly when they’re done violently by police action, and with no alternative in terms of a place to stay, they often end up tragic like this.”

Another man died a month later in March after being evicted from Tent City. Colville said that night, a friend’s car he was sleeping in caught fire.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found encampment sweeps correlated with higher mortality rates, and higher rates of hospitalization.

Under the overpass, Colville stopped to chat with four people sitting by their tents. One woman was excited to show him her setup, and Colville peeked inside.

“Very nice,” he responded.

He then asked them to come by to his “backyard” on Rosette Street, one block over. What people call Rosette Village is a mint-colored house called Amistad Catholic Worker.

A sidegate opened to a scattered collection of tents around what looked like a tiki bar – no alcohol or drugs are allowed on the property – but there’s plenty of food.

People were coming in and out to get a plate – Colville and his wife Luz have cooked for unhoused people in the community for close to 30 years.

Some sat on couches and talked. Others were headed to work or to secure state benefits. There were bright blue lockers donated by Yale to store personal belongings – ID cards and so on. And there was no sight of trash or needles. The tents had fans running – Colville supplies electricity from the house.

Birdsong and a beautiful human voice rang out clearly.

Someone was inside a tent, singing along to "Walking on Broken Glass" by Annie Lennox. A woman with shocking pink hair stepped out – Meghan Kantorowski was the one with that voice.

Before moving here last August, Kantorowski said she lived under a bridge in Lamberton Street.

Why the street? Why not a shelter?

“I enjoy my freedom,” she said. “I’ll take my freedom over anything.”

Rico Jones, her tent neighbor, chimed in.

“You might as well go to prison,” he said. “They search you when you come in, they take your stuff from you. They don’t allow you to bring in your own food. Their food is substandard or trash. You have to leave at 7:30 every morning, without fail. You’re kicked out whether it’s raining outside or if you’re sick. They don't care.”

Like everyone here, Jones, a carpenter, helped out by making coffee every morning, setting up tents, planting a community garden, and cleaning up.

All that physical activity, Jones said, helped him lose 4 inches off his waist. And he said his blood pressure is coming down; and he’s working to lower his blood glucose levels.

Kantorowski, too, said she experienced improvements in her asthma.

“We were exposed to a lot of black mold under there [in the tents on Lamberton Street],” she said. “I like it here. It might look a little hodgepodge, but it's home.”

She underscored the point and said these days she used her inhaler three times a week. Under the bridge, it was half-a-dozen times a day.

Suki Godek and her husband moved to Rosette Village after they were evicted from Tent City. Before that, they had a home in Idaho until they lost their dairy farm.

“As long as we have a fan and we have, you know, the clothes on our back, and each other, we are good,” Godek said. “We work now here in New Haven, all over the community doing labor, construction, painting, everything. Daily wages.”

Shelters don’t allow couples to live together and everyone has to leave after 90 days. Godek said both rules were bad for her mental health.

“I’m bipolar. It made it harder [if] you don’t have the stability that your home offers and that’s kind of what this was here,” she said. “It was a stable home. It’s somewhere that you know that you have that’s safe to stay and sleep everyday, so that you know you can get up the next day and do what you need to do — and work and everything — and that has a really big impact on your mental health.”

To Colville, the health outcomes were a “no brainer.”

“When people have electricity and access to running water and food and such on site it’s obvious that health will go up exponentially,” he said. “What we’re doing in our private property in the backyard is intended to be a model for our city to follow.”

He said people frequently asked him about time limits; for how long he intended to let the unhoused stay in his backyard. His response to them, he said: “I think people should be living there until they aspire to something better.”

Like residents living in Rosette Village, Colville also aspires for something better; he’s working to secure prefabricated tiny homes for his backyard neighbors by Thanksgiving.

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.