Yes, In My Backyard
Colleen Shaddox of East Haddam and Joanne Samuel Goldblum of Branford love to bake and cook for crowds. When Goldblum’s daughter got married, Goldblum created a cake table laden with delectable baked treats for the happy couple and their guests. Shaddox, the daughter of a restaurant worker, grew up working in restaurants. When her son recently got married, she and Goldblum teamed up to prepare and serve, with the help of some friends, a sumptuous feast followed by a spectacular wedding cake.
Then they looked at each other and asked, “What next?”
“And we said, ‘Well, we don’t want to stop doing this, but we’ve run out of children,’” Shaddox says. “Then we said, ‘We can do benefits for people!’ And we both immediately thought of the Amistad House because we know what good work they do.”
The families who make up New Haven’s Amistad Catholic Worker House, where the motto is “the only solution is love,” are on an urgent mission to help people who live in their neighborhood but without shelter. On a cold, cruel day in April of this year, city officials made good on threats to evict these people, who, during the pandemic, had patched together a community in a tent city near Ella Grasso Boulevard in New Haven. Mark Colville of the Amistad Catholic Worker House says that soon after being kicked out, three people died after seeking shelter in places that proved to be unsafe, including one person who burned to death while sleeping in a car and another who was hit by a train after resettling in a wooded area near the train tracks.
Colville and his family, including Luz Catarineau, their daughter Keeley Colville, their son-in-law Jacob Miller, and baby Josiah comprise the Amistad Catholic Worker, LLC. The two families, who live next door to each other in the neighborhood of New Haven, invited people who had been kicked out of the encampment to pitch tents in their backyards, providing those who accepted their hospitality with electricity, communal meals, organizing support, and more. Colville and his family are working to convince the city to acknowledge that housing is a basic human right and to change laws accordingly. At the same time, they are seeking funding for tiny houses to offer the unhoused the dignity of a warm, dry, safe place where they can store belongings, and live with loved ones, including pets, all the while creating community that will sustain them as they take steps towards finding a permanent home.
Colville–after growing up in Madison, attending Daniel Hand High School, and living in The Hill neighborhood for 30 years–says, “The Hill is a model for what a neighborhood should be. We take care of our own, and we take care of everyone who shows up.”
How We Can Help
Here is how we can help. On Saturday, May 13 of Mother’s Day Weekend, Shaddox and Goldblum will host an event at First Congregational Church of Guilford, 122 Broad Street in Guilford, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. where Colville will discuss the project, along with Suki Godek, who was evicted from the tent city in New Haven. Godek is now living in Colville’s backyard at Amistad House with other members of the tent city community.
At the event on May 13, participants will be treated to Goldblum’s mini-chocolate babkas, cinnamon rolls, and other baked goods. The folks from St. Mary’s Church in New Haven plan to bake a tater tot casserole to share. Shaddox, one of my longtime friends, plans to make Moroccan chicken, salmon poached in court bouillon, and tzatziki. My daughter and I are in charge of salads. And there will be desserts, so many desserts, baked by Goldblum.
Shaddox says the Rev. Gini King, a member of the Peace Affirmation and Justice Ministry Team at First Congregational Church in Guilford, immediately and enthusiastically embraced the idea of breaking bread over a discussion of the unhoused and agreed to sponsor the event. Benincasa (www.benincasacommunity.org) of Guilford, a lay community dedicated to works of mercy and justice, will act as the fiduciary for the event, with the goal of having the proceeds go towards the purchase of sturdy sleeping shelters from the public-benefit company Pallet (palletshelter.com) to be set up in the back yards of The Amistad Catholic Worker House (amistadcw.wordpress.com).
Tickets can be purchased here: tinyurl.com/inspiritofcommunity. Those who would like to support the event but who cannot attend are welcome to purchase a ticket and enter “GIFT” in the space for “attendee.”
Putting together meals for a crowd is not the only project where Shaddox and Goldblum have collaborated. They also are co-authors of Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, And Ending U.S. Poverty, a book that explains why poverty–rather than “a personal failure or deficiency of character or knowledge”–is generally the result of bad public policy and how we can work to change that.
Homelessness is just one of the subjects they tackle in the book. “Our book was really about the importance of meeting people’s basic needs to address poverty,” says Shaddox. “And that’s what the works of mercy are.” She adds: “...this country places such a stigma on poverty and blames people for their situation instead of the system that makes that situation almost inevitable. You know, it’s a spiritual problem that we don’t see people in poverty; not only that we don’t see them as our sisters and brothers, we often don’t see them as fully human. And that is particularly true among unhoused people. And Amistad’s work absolutely witnesses against that big lie.”
The root causes of homelessness in Connecticut, as in many other states, include, at the top of the list, the high cost of housing, low wages, and domestic violence. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that, working at Connecticut’s minimum wage of $14 an hour, someone would have to work 64 hours to afford a modest 1-bedroom rental home at fair market rent of about $1,172 a month (nlihc.org/oor/state/ct). Have you tried to find a decent apartment around here recently? I did, trying to help a friend. The first thing that popped up on Zillow was a studio apartment at the Bella Vista Phase III Apartments, for fixed-income seniors, on Eastern Avenue in New Haven for $1,230.
A studio apartment for fixed-income seniors was not adequate to meet the needs of my friend, who has a family of five. Affordable rent for a full-time worker at minimum wage is $728, which is laughable if you live in Connecticut. Sure, it’s possible to work two jobs and for both parents to work, but there are also realities associated with the cost and availability of childcare, food, of other essentials, along with the reality that some low-wage jobs offer hours that vary from week to week, with little notice to employees. It is a scary, precarious existence living in Connecticut on a minimum-wage job.
Another problem, says Shaddox, citing the work of Paul Boden of WRAP (https://wraphome.org), is that housing in this country has been commodified. “It’s an investment. It goes up and up and up and up faster than wages. So you can’t make a killing building affordable housing. So what used to happen was that the government used to subsidize the construction of affordable housing. And now the government is really out of the housing business. They may give tax breaks for someone who is setting aside a few token units. But the major spending our government does on housing is the mortgage interest deduction, which goes almost entirely to middle class and rich people,” she says.
A Common Table, A Shared Life
Colville knows all of that. He and his family and other housing advocates are working on ways to change the system. In the meantime, they want to provide for those–formerly strangers and now friends–who are camping in their backyard.
“We sort of have gone where the neighborhood has led us,” he says. “We try to have an open door and a common table where whatever work we do is centered around the table, you know, people eating at a common table. We try to get away from the soup kitchen model and get more into a shared life.” He sees homelessness very much as an issue about affordable housing and living wage jobs, “but it also has to do with the loss of community and family and relationships, you know? As these things break down, that is very much a contributing factor to homelessness.”
And so he and his family offer a welcoming space and a neighborhood within a neighborhood, with the goal of establishing a small tiny-home community that might serve as a model for Connecticut.
“The water we are swimming in when it comes to poor people in New Haven is that the homeless are criminalized in so many ways. We’ve begun to examine that. There needs to be an alternative to the shelter system because that involves the institutionalization of poor people. There may be some people who need that kind of help and support. But the majority of people who are homeless do not need to be institutionalized. And so we are trying to set up a micro-neighborhood.”