For Chronic Homeless, Vacant Buildings Provide Shelter, Danger

New Haven limbs case illustrates danger chronic homeless face

NEW HAVEN — The vacant Salvation Army residence on George Street, where Ray Roberson may have been dismembered, had a long history of helping addicted men, and a short stint on the abandoned-building circuit — the dangerous last rung on the downward spiral for the chronically homeless.

Police believe Roberson, 54, may have been camping with several other homeless men inside the locked, boarded, former architectural gem, with jury-rigged wires feeding boosted electricity into a building that once housed 45 men going through the Salvation Army's highly structured treatment program.

A large, silver-metal box, the outside portion of a walk-in freezer, is visible just to the side of the entrance to the brick structures designed by New Haven's hometown architect, Henry Austin, in the 19th Century. The complex, still owned by the Salvation Army and being eyed by a housing developer, closed in June 2014 after a 94-year run.

Members of the homeless community helped lead city detectives to the complex of buildings at 301-305 George St., and the former Salvation Army thrift store around the corner at 274 Crown St. — where a headless torso was found late last Wednesday night or Thursday morning by police officers, aided by cadaver dogs.

Severed legs found by the railroad tracks at State and Court streets on July 15 have been linked to Roberson, and severed arms found on a ledge under a railroad bridge at State and Chapel streets are likely a match to Roberson, Officer David Hartman, the New Haven police spokesman, said last week. The torso is being tested at the chief state medical examiner's office.

Roberson, a sometime painter and landscaper who was trusted implicitly by some friends, including an alderwoman, but who often tangled with police, appears in the last months of his life to have been part of New Haven's population of chronically homeless people.

By choice or otherwise, these men and women, a subset of every group of urban homeless, live for periods of time outside the organized shelter system. They sleep in abandoned cars, in tents in thatches of woods — or in vacant buildings, according to advocates for New Haven's homeless community.

In these forlorn properties, peace can collapse into volatility in an instant. Even for men and women hardened by rough travels, there is a vulnerability that they don't experience inside the system of organized shelters.

Even for Noel Lloyd, 57, of New Haven, who looks very much like he can handle himself, who has been on the streets since his late teens, and who is still paying penance for a robbery-with-a-firearm conviction a decade ago.

"You never know who's going to come into one of those buildings," Lloyd said last week in an interview at the Fellowship Inn, a daily haven for homeless from 7:30 in the morning to 1:30 in the afternoon. Fellowship's clients are coping with other issues, such as mental illness and addiction, sometimes at the same time. Many spend their nights at Columbus House, the city's largest shelter.

Up until a few years ago, Lloyd spent many of his nights inside abandoned buildings in New Haven. He had a rule: If he walked into a room with candles and bedding already there, he always stayed somewhere else in the building, in case that last person came back wanting that same spot.

"I'm a loner anyway, man," he said.

It is a restless, fitful existence.

"You got to have a sixth sense," said Andrew King, sitting forward in his chair at the Fellowship Inn. A Navy veteran who served in the early 1970s, he said he has camped in abandoned buildings in Danbury and East Hartford. "You hear a noise, you jump right up. It's like a defense. You gotta have it. Someone might try to stab you in the back, in your sleep."

Rhonda Thomas exudes a quiet, comforting presence as she gathers her thoughts about the hell she lived through as a crack and heroin addict sleeping in abandoned buildings in northern New Jersey, Bridgeport and Hartford.

She recalled the stench of feces, the times in the dead of winter that she slept in a bed with five or six men and women, clenched together under coats.

"Not for sex — you did it for warmth,' she said in the soft light of the Fellowship Inn's main room. "It was ugly and it was miserable. I felt shame, but it took me a long time to get sick and tired enough of that life to want to climb out."

These are places where predators and prey can meet in close quarters.

"Many of our chronically homeless suffer from mental illness or addiction. If you're vulnerable, and you're out on the street and seeking your own shelter, you can be taken advantage of," said Mary Guerrera, executive director of Fellowship Place, which runs Fellowship Inn. It is counseling center where people can come in during the day for a shower, food, access to a phone and a computer, set daily goals, and get help with medical and mental-health treatment, and finding housing or a job.

"Your backpack can be taken, your money. It's an unfortunate choice that some people make [to live in makeshift shelters], and we work very hard to reach them and total to them about alternatives," Guerrera said.

The lifestyle poses added risks, not only to the homeless people themselves, but to firefighters responding to calls at these structures. Fire-scene commanders often must assume that someone is inside and order an aggressive search, which opens a world of dangers.

"You have to expect that some of these vacant buildings are going to have squatters in them," Assistant New Haven Fire Chief Matthew Marcarelli said. "We roll up to an obviously blighted building with a single room on fire. Short of spontaneous ignition, the likelihood is a person is involved in that ignition source."

That Roberson may have met his end in a camp inside a vacant property "is very disconcerting to the people living outside," said John Bradley, executive director of Liberty Community Services, which offers medical and mental-health treatment and shelter to homeless people. "It is a reminder that awful things can happen. It raises the anxiety level."

As it is, Bradley said, homeless people are victimized at a higher rate than other groups, and are targets of other street people or strangers.

'He Had His Problems'

Roberson had last stayed at the Columbus House shelter in the Hill neighborhood this past winter, said director Alison Cunningham.

"He was working with case managers who were trying to find him housing," said Cunningham.

His violent death, she said, "is traumatizing for the staff who knew him. Everyone is feeling pretty crappy about this. It is awfully sad."

Alderwoman Alfreda Edwards, a Democrat who lives on Sheffield Avenue in the Newhallville neighborhood, said she knew Roberson for many years. He used to do landscaping jobs with her son, she said.

"He painted my bedroom, he did the yard, he helped paint my kitchen — you could leave your house open and he would never touch anything," said Edwards.

She recalled that he "always had his backpack," and said he was something of an artist who could draw very well.

She said Roberson "had his issues," perhaps with alcohol.

"My son tried to help him. He'd get on Ray about his drinking," she said. She believed Ray could have a temper, but said was "always respectful to us."

Sometimes when he was working at her house, "He'd say, 'I'm going down the hill for a beer.' Then he'd come back later," said Edwards.

Other times, Edwards would see Roberson downtown on Temple Street, waiting to be picked by another worker to do painting jobs.

She said she last saw Roberson in the spring, on the New Haven Green.

"He had lost weight," said Edwards. "He seemed depressed." I said, 'Come by, people have work for you.' He said 'OK,' but I sensed he wasn't going to come."

Roberson was last arrested on May 15, charged with breach of peace on College Street by a Yale University police officer. He gave the address of Edwards' home on Sheffield Avenue.

"He did give our address [as the place he was living] with my permission," said Edwards.

Jesse Hardy, who runs a homeless outreach program, said he knew Roberson for 45 years. He last saw Roberson in June.

"He had his problems with alcohol, but he was a giver. Whenever he had anything, he made sure anyone he was with got their fair share. When he was your friend, he was your friend all the way," said Hardy.

Attempts to contact Roberson's sister, Rene Roberson, and brother, Michael Roberson, were unsuccessful. Both live in New Haven.

Hundreds Of Homeless

New Haven's homeless community numbered 567 in the last annual survey taken in January by outreach workers, said Guerrera and Bradley.

They said the community is shrinking gradually — there were 13 percent fewer people needing organized shelters this year compared with the same period last year — and the occupancy rate in supported housing units is growing. These apartments are subsidized and case workers are either present at the site, or are readily available.

"People are getting housed, but it's all about keeping that housing," said Bailey Orell, who directs intake and homeless services at Fellowship Place. "We tailor our groups to what you need to stay housed — budgeting your money, keeping your mental-health appointments, staying with the treatment. If not, you can start to isolate yourself, and lose the grasp on your finances, and that can snowball."

In New Haven, and in many cities, the majority of people struggling to find housing are characterized as "transitionally" homeless — people dislodged by divorce, a lost job, foreclosure.

"It may be the only time in their lives that they are homeless, and we wouldn't expect to see them again," said Bradley.

But there remains a more elusive element — single men and women who make up about 20 percent of the total community. They are chronically homeless, defined as people who are homeless for more than a year, or who have had multiple episodes of homelessness over the last three years, said Bradley.

It is mainly people from this small group that find their way into abandoned buildings in the city. In 2009-2010, there were as many as 900 completely vacant houses, mixed-used buildings and commercial structures in the city, said Frank D'Amore, deputy director of the New Haven's Livable City Initiative.

As the real-estate market has improved, the number of vacant buildings has dropped substantially, to about 600 as of last year. D'Amore's office plans another survey by the end of the summer.

"My job is trying to keep the buildings secure and [get any grass or brush] cut back, so the neighbors aren't living in the midst of blighted situations," said D'Amore.

And when a bank owns the property, it's also D'Amore's job to "pressure the banks to keep up the properties. They don't want to put money into these buildings, but they also don't want to pay fines."

Between fires and training sessions, New Haven's engine and ladder companies make note of the condition of every vacant building in their district, Marcarelli said. Unsecured buildings are reported to D'Amore's office, to the fire marshal, or to the police. When firefighters run into squatters during these inspections, police supervisors in that district are alerted.

"Especially in the winter, we have to keep a paper trail on these buildings and determine if squatters are using them. It's also a quality of life issue for other people in the neighborhood," said Marcarelli.

The Salvation Army still owns the George and Crown street properties, located in a busy area next to office and apartment buildings and restaurants on the edge of downtown.

Tim Raines, a Salvation Army spokesman based in New York, said the organization acquired the Henry Austin buildings in 1920 and for nearly a century ran an adult rehabilitation center there. The organization has closed its New Haven and Bridgeport centers and moved the services to its center in Hartford — a large, renovated former factory building on Homestead Avenue.

Raines said the Salvation Army has been cooperating with New Haven police since the discovery of the torso. The George and Crown street buildings were checked once a month, and the organization believed the structures were locked, Raines said.

When the severed legs, and then the handless arms were found, there was, of course, fear in the city that a serial killer was at work. But when the legs were matched to Roberson, and the torso was discovered where he may have last been staying, the focus of the investigation turned to Roberson's homeless lifestyle and the people with whom he'd spent time recently.

Two people interviewed by The Courant who are familiar with Roberson, and the case, said they heard the story that was going around the homeless community soon after the focus of the probe shifted: that Roberson had been living in a building with three other men, with electricity, possibly running water, and a freezer.

Now police are pursuing that very scenario.

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