Nestor hooked a tank of propane to a silver grill he had recently rehabbed — and started counting each second to see how long it would take to boil two eggs on the outdoor device, showcasing a self-built living arrangement he set up to survive as comfortably as he can at a West River homeless encampment.
Nestor is one of roughly 30 residents of New Haven’s unofficial “tent city,” a semi-permanent outdoor cohabitation of the unhoused that is is located off of Ella T. Grasso Boulevard between a soccer field and the banks of the West River.
His setup at tent city is also one of the encampment’s most robust: It boasts a self-made home complete with a picket fence, potted flowers and a flamingo floaty with which to relax on the nearby river after a long day on the job as a construction worker.
On a recent morning, before the eggs could reach even a soft boil, rain started to melt out of the sky, turning the frozen dirt around Nestor’s feet into a cold and unconquerable mud.
Nestor, a 46-year-old Colombian immigrant who declined to share his last name for this article, quickly adapted by unscrewing the gas bottle and carrying it through a wooden fence made out of shipping crates. He planted the tank outside of his tent and slipped off his shoes. Then he crawled inside a small bedroom made of tarps and blankets, where he connected that same propane container to a radiant heater that warmed his living space in under a minute.
Meanwhile, those of Nestor’s neighbors not already hiding from the elements under their own tents on the drizzly winter morning hustled across wooden pallets implanted by Nestor and friends earlier this fall to create makeshift pathways across the makeshift living area’s frequently drenched grounds.
Unlike many of those seeking refuge within the encampment, Nestor said he came to tent city by choice. He had the means to keep paying a monthly rent — but also the know-how to keep warm in a self-constructed shelter in a bid to stop funneling the majority of his income into somebody else’s property.
When he moved to the encampment five months ago, he found a new community that he and a growing team of unhoused activists are looking to legitimize despite official municipal wariness.
Members of the encampment had hoped to begin the New Year with new recognition and assistance from the city. Click here to read previous interviews with members of tent city who spoke about the complications of living in the encampment, including how many people who reside there struggle with serious substance use disorders. Residents shared with the Independent their hopes that city government will recognize an alternative to shelter life in the face of a national affordable housing shortage. They collectively imagined a legally sanctioned encampment complete with city-provided electricity, water and mail delivery.
That hoped-for legal recognition doesn’t appear to be coming anytime soon.
During a phone interview with the Independent, Mayor Justin Elicker — who visited tent city on New Year’s Day to help distribute Covid-19 tests — said that legalizing the encampment is not on the table. He added that his administration does not intend to dismantle the community unless public health hazards are brought to his attention.
“We can’t legalize encampments on parks property or city property, because it’s important for us to ensure that the spaces are safe for everyone,” Elicker said.
Mark Colville, a local activist who helped organize the Boulevard-adjacent encampment during the pandemic, disagreed with the mayor’s response. “There’s a whole cross section of low-income people in the city who are not included in that statement,” he said. “Until he designates a place for people to sleep, the public parks and property are not for everyone.” (See below for more on Elicker’s take on tent city, and Colville’s response.)
Nestor, meanwhile, didn’t sound worried about the potential of the city removing the encampment upon which he has spent months building a home with discarded nails, wood and gravel.
“I don’t make so many plans. I live in the moment,” he said.
However, he has come to care about the stance the city takes on the encampment — because, he said, many people depend for their daily survival on their ability to remain in the community.
“I’m Happy Here”
Nestor has lived at tent city for half a year.
Since immigrating to the states from Colombia five years ago, he lived in Florida and New York City before moving to New Haven a couple years back. Over the last several months, Nestor found a semi-consistent gig as a construction worker.
“Sometimes I work all summer, all year, and sometimes I have no work,” he said. On weekends or rainy days he is typically left without work. That’s when “I get my couple beers and stay here working with a hammer. And I just make sure I don’t make too much noise, because I know some people sleep during the day here.”
He used skills he picked up as a construction worker to build his own makeshift living space from the ground up. He purchased a $6 machete last summer. He used it to hack away the brambles standing between him and the river, establishing space on which he could lay a bed of gravel, then a wooden pallet floor layered with crocheted carpets and a small mattress.
The tent itself is covered by a wooden structure and fencing that provides an additional layer of privacy and protection. He forged a pathway from his living space down to the river, which is lit by battery-powered lights leading the way to a neon pink flamingo floaty on which he sometimes sits to enjoy a cold beer in the warmer weather.
Before he discovered tent city, Nestor was paying $750 a month in rent, which he said was often a stretch with his variable income. It was still better than New York City, which he left after realizing “all my money was going to rent.”
“I don’t wanna be a millionaire,” he stated. “But it’s good to have money in your bank account. And to survive, it’s not only rent you have to pay. You gotta eat.”
One day while biking around New Haven, Nestor met a panhandler named Victor. They exchanged words in their shared native Spanish before Victor suggested Nestor drop by the encampment on the Boulevard.
Upon seeing the area, Nestor made the snap decision to terminate his apartment lease. By living outdoors, he’d be able to save more money and up the amount he sent each month in child support back in Colombia.
He established a new routine: “I wake up at six in the morning. I go to Dunkin’ Donuts. I drink coffee and I charge my phone. When people call me for work, I take the bus or the train. At night, I go to my friend’s in Branford and take a shower. On the weekends, I clean my clothes over at the laundromat.”
In his downtime, he catches the bus and explores his new state.
“I go to the beach, I put my bike on the bus and go to Hammonasset. I love it. I go visit my friends.” He watches as the waves crash onto the shore and retreat into themselves, he said, and he stares at stars unchallenged by the light pollution persistent in bigger cities. “I’m happy here,” he said.
As the 46-year-old gets older, the way he spends his time is changing. In New York, he spent his free time playing soccer. As his knees deteriorate, he has started opting for bike rides to keep his mind calm. He watches youth play soccer on the field adjacent to the encampment.
He also spends time investing in his new community — helping individuals build up their own spaces, placing pallets under their tents to ward off cold seeping in from the ground below, hammering fences around their tents to suggest a greater sense of autonomy, or leaving food outside the doors of those who may not be able to get out of their sleeping bags that day due to sickness or mental exhaustion.
In tent city, he has found a new type of interdependent community and meaning he’s been divorced from since leaving Colombia.
“I remember when I owned my own house, my own business, and had all my family near. I grew up with my family around me: My grandmother, my mother, my sister, my brother,” he recalled. Since leaving his wife five years back, he hasn’t seen his family, with the exception of regular FaceTimes with his 19-year-old daughter.
“She asks, ‘Hey, dad, why does it look so funny in here?’” he said. “I say, ‘I’m in the bathroom. I’m on the patio,’ ” to hide the fact that he is living in a tent. Nestor believes his family will worry and urge him him to come back home if he reveals that he is living in a homeless encampment.
Compared to Colombia, he said, Connecticut has felt like a safe haven. In his home country, “you have to watch your back all the time” because of widespread violent crime. “It’s a hard life.”
Most people he meets in New Haven, he said, “complain about their bosses, about food stamps, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘don’t know nothing.’ ”
At the same time, he noted, “people asking for asylum over at the border think life is easy for people here.”
“It doesn’t matter where you’re going,” he asserted. “Life is hard. Even for the Americans.”
Biking and busing around New Haven while living in the encampment has given him a uniquely direct view of that hardship.
Around 80 percent of those living at tent city, he estimated, suffer from serious substance abuse disorders.
“When you’re on drugs, you just have to do what you have to do.” While he enjoys taking pride in his home, he knows that many of his neighbors don’t even realize when their tents are flooding water. “When they’re on drugs, they’re not thinking about anything else.”
He does what he can to help his neighbors, he said, from offering his construction skills and time to collecting cans for a next door couple who cash them in for a couple of dollars every few days.
When Mayor Elicker visited the encampment over the past weekend, Nestor said, he gave him a tour of the area. He told the mayor how he helps clean up garbage and litter, in an attempt to show the mayor that he and his community are capable of self-governance.
Nestor is hoping that the encampment can one day be legalized “not only for me but for all the homeless,” he said.
He said he reaches out to the people he sees sleeping by Union Station each time he catches a train, and gives them directions to tent city.
“I see so many people over there” living in isolation, he said. At tent city, social workers, churchgoers and strong-hearted New Haveners drop by with food, clothing donations, and Narcan kits. Resources are compiled, and people look out for one another when they have the bandwidth to do so, he said.
At the very least, he said, the encampment provides a refuge from “sleeping on the benches or the streets, from threatening security.”
And some fragment of hope is restored when living within a community. “When you come here and you’re smiling and you talk nice to the people, you bring hope,” he said.
“People like that. You can see people care. They’re thinking about us, they say. They say, at least we have someone.”
As he spoke those words, Belgian truck driver-turned-missionary Johan Malfroot arrived at the gate to tent city.
Malfroot said he has started dropping by tent city a few times each week since he moved to New Haven in October.
The truck driver makes his way to the Boulevard to drop off propane tanks, like the one used by Nestor, or to drive those living at the encampments to barber shop appointments, as he was doing Friday. And, as a Christian missionary is wont to do, Malfroot tekks tent city residents of the power of Christianity.
He said that he discovered the encampment by following God’s guidance — and that he enjoys the scenery of the bare trees by the West River, which reminds him of Norway.
While Malfroot said he hopes that reciting Bible verses can provide inspiration and hope to many of those living in despair, he acknowledged that individuals like Nestor don’t need such words.
“He has a good mind, a good heart. He feels the need. He doesn’t need a pastor or a god to tell him.”
Mayor: No Plans To Legalize Tent City
While Nestor spoke about ways he has seen tent city provide relief for those living in desolation, Elicker told the Independent that legalization of any encampment is not on his agenda — largely because of the potential safety hazards of such a setup.
“We’ve obviously known about the existence of this encampment for quite sometime,” Elicker said.
He said he stopped by on New Year’s Day to oversee distribution of Covid-19 tests while sharing some “very nice conversations,” including with “a man named Nestor who gave me a tour and talked to me about his view of how the encampment is operating.”
“It wasn’t too much different from the last time I was there,” Elicker said. What has changed is that over the past year the city’s homelessness crisis has grown in response to a loss of shelter beds and affordable housing stock following the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the meantime, advocacy on the parts of not just local activists but those without housing themselves has grown.
Read more here about the unhoused community activist team (U‑ACT), a group of New Haveners currently without housing who are working alongside long-time organizers such as Mark Colville, who runs a Catholic workers house in the Hill neighborhood. Among other efforts, U‑ACT has been urging the city to not evict those experiencing homelessness off of public land and to designate specific spaces, such as the Boulevard’s tent city, as legal encampments.
“We can’t legalize encampments on parks property or city property because it’s important for us to ensure that the spaces are safe for everyone,” Elicker told the Independent. He said that possibility was simply not on the table, but that the city has yet to dismantle the encampment “because there have not been life safety issues yet.”
That said, he added, “I think some of the requests that the group that Mark is involved in are very legitimate and important requests.” For example, Elicker said that his administration is currently looking into installing public bathrooms on the downtown green, one of U‑ACT’s ongoing requests.
“We all recognize that housing is a very significant challenge at the moment,” he said. “Ultimately we’re gonna be able to resolve this challenge by increasing the number of affordable and deeply affordable units across the city.”
Colville agreed that available affordable housing paired with an adequate supply of living wage jobs is indeed key to curing homelessness.
He pushed back on Elicker’s argument that allowing individuals access to public land would undermine public safety for “everyone.”
“What are we saying to the people who have no place to go when we’re building studio apartments for $2,100 per month a mile away from where they’re sleeping outside?” Colville asked. “You have excluded them from the category of ‘everyone,’ which is disgusting.”
“Even when you can afford an apartment in the city, it takes usually more than half or a third of your monthly income,” Colville continued. “It’s a totally legitimate decision for someone to say, ‘I’m gonna live on my own, or spend the summer sleeping on the public land,’ ” as Nestor does, when housing and healthcare function as capitalist ventures, Colville argued.
Beyond being an issue of income, Colville said, “homelessness itself is a breakdown of community. It usually begins with the breakdown of family life, family often being the most essential community.”
Providing individuals with permanent space beyond temporary shelter beds gives them the ability to invest in themselves, their personal space, and the people around them, Colville argued.
When tent city members return to the encampment at the end of the day, he said, “they can find some support, mutual support, for things like drug addiction, for things like trauma, for things like the break down of marriages and friendships.”
“Igf encampments were legal,” he offered, “they’d have things like mental health services, social work services, even rehab or drug counseling services would be available on site.”
“Once you designate a piece of land and say, okay, you have a right to be here,” he concluded, “the question becomes: ‘How does this become livable?’ Not, ‘How do we hide poor people?’ ”
See below for more recent Independent articles about homelessness, activism, and attempts to find shelter this winter.
• Shelter Sought From Cold-Weather Emergency
• Homelessness Advocates Brace For “Tidal Wave”
• Breakfast Delivery Warms Up “Tent City”
• Warming Centers Open, While City Looks To Long-Term Homeless Fixes
• “Human Rights Zone” Grows In Hill Backyard
• Homeless Hotel Plan Scrapped. What’s Next?
• Election Day Rally Casts Ballot For Housing