A Place Like This
By Michelle Chen
“I just wanna express to you that inside these walls, it might look good on paper, but it’s
not.” Inside the ground floor hallway, I was talking with Paul, a “pretreatment” client who had
been at the shelter for a month and a half. A clean-cut man in his late twenties, he was neatly
dressed for his circumstances.
People were all around us, chatting and smoking as they waited for dinner to begin. We
were sitting in the stairwell, where it was easier to hear him.
Paul’s experience with Columbus House had been typical, but his perception had been
unique. He expressed respect for the administrators and case workers upstairs. “They care. They
try to do the best they can. But they have underneath them their employees … They treat people
like garbage.” Some of the downstairs staff, he said, “are out to stab you in the back … just don’t
give a damn about you. All they want is a paycheck.”
He’s noticed abuse on both sides: staff talking to clients as if they were “animals,”
clients who ruin furniture and defecate where they shouldn’t, staff getting frustrated and growing
“harder, and harder, and harder on clients,” clashes that ensue when clients are mistreated to the
point that “they start going crazy.” He admonished plaintively, “If you start yelling at the dog in
the corner, he’s gonna bite you.”
Columbus House operates on a principle of discipline—discipline that is simultaneously
just, harsh and futile, accepted and exacted with ambivalence.
“Life in a homeless shelter sucks,” said the Executive Director, Alison Cunningham in
her small office on the third floor. A lean, mildly serious Texan, the Yale Divinity School
graduate has worked at Columbus House since 1998. She has seen enough to be able to deliver
her assessment without a hint of facetiousness. Among the clients, “there’s not a person down
there who has chosen to be in this shelter. Our job is to make their stay here as palatable as
possible.” The administration wants the shelter to be livable, but not too livable.
Everyone is woken up at 6:30 every morning, and those who are not on LOS are
expected to be out by 7:30. The ordinary clients must take their belongings with them, lest they
be donated to the Salvation Army while they are gone. Pretreatment drug addicts like Paul cannot
leave the building unless they have special permission or are accompanied by staff. Everyone
cleans up after dinner, which is prepared by volunteers and staff. Violation of these rules could
result in a discharge from the shelter, but most of the rules are only reluctantly followed,
sometimes ignored outright.
The focus on self-responsibility emerges partially from the demographic that the shelter
serves: single adults. While society and the media more readily sympathize with homeless
battered women and abused children, it’s relatively easy for taxpayers to think that these clients
deserve to be where they are. But the administration sees the doors of Columbus House as a
threshold at which the client begins to discover just why he shouldn’t be here.
“You know, I tell you, I coulda been outta here sooner,” said Paul. “But I chose to
continue my lifestyle, you know.” Fortunately, his caseworkers were persistent. “They was there.
They said, ‘Hey, here’s a plan, what do you wanna do?’ ” Paul didn’t want to do anything when he
was first asked. He “shot it down, shot it down, figure I could do it, you know, my way, and things
of that nature.” But he told me that he has since then tired of “the street life.” The realization
that his way simply was not working brought him into pretreatment. He understands that the
caseworkers need to be tough. “Even the ones that are, you know, rough on you—they’re here
Adjusting to life here is about tolerance. The dynamics of one night here are like some
bizarre test of the utmost limit of a person’s patience and social skills. Case studies abound,
according to Alison. “You’re in here with fifty-two people every day, and it’s loud, and it’s hot
or it’s cold, or … people don’t smell good, or maybe the guy next to me is drunk and I’m trying
to stay clean, or maybe the guy next to me is clean and I want him to go get high with me …
maybe I’m a vegetarian and all there is to eat is meatloaf … Come on, what kind of life is this,
Clients often think the same thing and leave without notice before morning. The staff is
disappointed when this happens, because the demand for beds every afternoon is invariably
greater than the supply. “Perhaps that person who I told we didn’t have room for is now gone,
and I don’t know where they are, and I could’ve given them your bed.”
In Alison’s view, all clients are on their way out from the minute they walk in. The
staff’s job is to isolate you from your addiction, keep you away from your violent boyfriend
or just get you out of the cold, but your ultimate destination is a stable life or longer-term therapy.
Clients suffering from drug addiction or alcoholism enter treatment programs, ranging from
detoxes to cognitive behavioral therapy. Those with mental illnesses are referred to psychiatric
facilities. Others are routed to job training or specialized housing. But if you start to stay still in a
place like this, you’re in trouble.
“Managing chaos” is the most accurate way Bill Johnston can define his job at Columbus
House. Slumped in a swivel chair, dark eyes sagging and emphysematic lungs connected by
tubes to an oxygen tank, the large middle-aged man always looks weighed down by something.
He starts every day with a plan for what he needs to accomplish as Director of Programming
and Operations, and every day his plans are foiled by “constant interruptions,” which range
from plumbing problems to clients who don’t stick with pretreatment. From his narrow, cluttered
office on the top floor, he provided a glimpse into this anarchical realm that he alternately
manages and is managed by.
As the problem of homelessness has simultaneously worsened and receded from the
public consciousness in economic good times, Columbus House has found itself expanding by
default. The shelter began eighteen years ago as Cooperative Downtown Ministries, occupying a
converted convent at $1 rent a month. It now encompasses, in addition to the original shelter, a
city government-sponsored overflow shelter, two transitional housing units for men, and an
apartment complex for substance-abusing women. Columbus House’s exclusive focus on adults
makes it difficult for the staff to convince politicians and local residents—adults with homes,
jobs and other things the shelter’s inhabitants lack—that the shelter is not just a repository for
troublemakers and degenerates. The previous alderman who represented Columbus House’s
community supported Columbus House’s expansion, but quickly lost the office to a much less
Nevertheless, even people who balked at the idea of having a shelter in their community
would not deny that New Haven needs Columbus House. “[T]hey will tell you in a heartbeat that
it’s a needed service,” said Bill, “but they don’t want you in their neighborhood.”
Bill has grown accustomed to the adversity, however. He sees people’s reluctance to
deal with the shelter’s physical presence as an indicator of a quintessentially American belief
that “you can pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps.”
Bill doesn’t think anyone ever pulls themselves up without the help of others, himself
included. His view of the success and failure of his clients as both parallel and connected to his
life is what keeps him in this job. He works here “for very selfish reasons. I figure if I help you,
you help me. I get a rush out of seeing people succeed.”
He experienced a different kind of success for twelve years as Vice President of Human
Resources at the Gulf Oil Corporation, working in Pittsburgh and the wealthy suburb of Reston,
Virginia. One of a handful of black employees, he ran the only department in the company that
never faced a discrimination lawsuit. Under his guidance, the firm boosted workforce’s diversity.
Yet later on, he began to see that what was driving the cold, corporate structure of Human
Resources was dollars, not people. “They were just deluding themselves,” he told me, “ ’cause it
wasn’t really about money. It has always been about people … it’s never about anything else but
For Bill, Columbus House is not about anything else but people. It’s not about addiction
or mental illness or unemployment. It’s about human beings providing a safe place for other
human beings to exist.
Bill recalled how years ago, through Columbus House’s outreach, a homeless woman
went from living in squalor and suffering from psychosis to serving as the superintendent of a
supportive housing project. Now, she frequently complains “about how dirty their clients are and
the whole bit … cracks me up.” People often undergo a complicated metamorphosis through this
place, but the staff operates on a seemingly simple premise: all clients have to free themselves.