Officials clear homeless camp in Naugatuck

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By Elio Gugliotti, Editor

Agencies worked together to find housing options for people

Remnants of a homeless encampment in Naugatuck are shown July 2 before borough crews cleaned up the area. Officials and local agencies worked with people living at the camp to find housing before cleaning up the area. –CONTRIBUTED

NAUGATUCK — Officials cleared a homeless encampment along the Naugatuck River through a months-long effort that involved multiple agencies and focused on helping people living in the camp find housing.

The effort culminated July 2 when a borough public works crew cleaned up the remnants of the camp that once stood on land next to the Naugatuck River and Metro-North Railroad tracks near General Pulaski Way off Bridge Street.

The land is owned by the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which leases it to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to operate the rail line, Deputy Police Chief C. Colin McAllister said. The camp also extended onto a small section of borough-owned land, he said.

It’s unclear when the camp was first established or exactly how many people lived there.

McAllister said there were about half a dozen various structures at the camp, including what he described as an open-air kitchen area. He said there were also two vehicles at the camp at times. He said the camp was large enough to sustain a living area for all seasons.

McAllister said the number of people at the camp fluctuated. It’s believed 13 people lived there at one point. He said three or four people lived there “long term.” There were no children living at the camp, he said.

Officials learned about the scope of the camp in early January after concerns about safety were raised, including by MTA workers.

McAllister said MTA crews working on the train tracks saw people driving and walking on the tracks, and also reported the size of the camp. Aside from those living at the camp, McAllister said, visitors would also come and go, including residents who dropped off supplies to help the homeless.

“At the end of the day, the situation wasn’t safe for anyone,” he said.

Kevin Burns, who works for DOT, is the state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, a national program that promotes safety around railroad tracks and crossings. He said many people don’t realize how dangerous it is to walk on the rails or on the right of way.

“They think they will hear a train coming, but will not hear it until it is too late. It is not only dangerous, but it is also illegal. It’s trespassing,” he said.

The borough worked with state and MTA officials, people at the encampment, as well as local organizations to clear the camp in an approach that officials say wasn’t heavy-handed.

“We worked really hard to not make this an enforcement issue,” said McAllister, noting the focus was to get people to voluntarily leave and no arrests were made during the process.

Borough officials reached out to the Center for Human Development and the Naugatuck YMCA for help.

The Center for Human Development is a human services agencies based in western Massachusetts. The agency has offices in Waterbury and operates a hospitality center in the city that provides services for the homeless.

Lori Walling, homeless outreach coordinator for CHD, said the agency helped five or six people from the camp in Naugatuck find a place to stay and obtain federally funded vouchers for housing. She said quite a few people were in and out of the camp, and some found housing on their own.

Walling’s job is to go into the woods to find and help homeless people. She said tent camps consistently pop up in Waterbury, but this was the first time she worked in Naugatuck. She said anyone in need of help can come to the hospitality center at 690 East Main St. in Waterbury for assistance.

Walling credited borough officials with how they handled the situation. Rather than simply relocating the people in the camp, she said officials sought to help them.

“They actually had their heart in it,” Walling said.

One former resident of the homeless camp has been living at the Naugatuck YMCA for almost two months now.

Naugatuck YMCA CEO Mark LaFortune said the organization worked with police and was able to help the man, who he described as a “stand-up guy,” with housing.

“The Y is here for the community,” he said.

The Naugatuck YMCA is one of a handful in the state that still offers low-rent, dormitory-style housing for single men. There are about 40 rooms at the YMCA on Church Street.

LaFortune said men from all walks of life there, some for years. He said the YMCA connects the men with services they may need, including mental health or food services, or helping them find a job.

LaFortune said the YMCA prides itself on not turning anyone away due to the inability to pay.

“We will always find a way to help those who need it,” he said.

The borough provided two dumpsters for people living at the camp to throw away any belongings they didn’t want to keep. By the time workers rolled in with an excavator and bulldozer July 2, McAllister said the camp had been vacant for weeks.

The site of the former camp is planned to be used as part of the Naugatuck River Greenway, a 44-mile long trail that will follow the river from Torrington to Derby. Officials have added additional signs to mark the land as off-limits and police have increased patrols of the area. McAllister said anyone caught trespassing on the land could face enforcement action.