New Haven's First Responders Need Housing. One University Is Rolling Out the Red Carpet. Yale Is Not.

Ryan D'Agostino
Photo credit: Hartford Courant

From Esquire

On Friday, March 20, the first-term, first-time mayor of New Haven, Justin Elicker, called one of the largest employers in the city he governs, Yale University. He had an urgent request for Yale’s president, Peter Salovey: New Haven needed safe, local, temporary housing for up to 180 of its police officers and firefighters during the COVID-19 crisis.

Could Yale make some of its 586 dormitory beds, or its 276 apartment units, available to the city workers? No one infected with COVID-19 would use the dorms, Elicker explained to Yale’s Office of New Haven Affairs, which acts as a liaison between the Ivy League university and the city. These rooms would be for workers who might have family members who are ill, or who have been exposed and are awaiting testing, or who simply live far away and need to be closer to the city in case of emergency.

Southern Connecticut is a growing hot spot for the spread of COVID-19. A party in Westport, just 28 miles south of New Haven, had ignited an explosion in cases, and New Haven now had the highest number of positive cases outside of Fairfield County, where Westport is located. New Haven County is also home to many people who commute by train to New York City, where the number of cases is multiplying exponentially.

A few weeks prior, Salovey had already reached out to Elicker’s office with a general offer to assist any way they could. Yale is one of the most well-funded universities on the planet, last reporting its endowment at $30.3 billion.

So Elicker was confident.

And yet, on that very first call:

“They said no,” Elicker says. “They said there were students’ things in the dorms, and the dorm configurations weren’t such that it would be easy to self-isolate people, because there are suites, and that dormitories weren’t the best place to contain COVID-19.”

Photo credit: Kathryn Donohew Photography

Elicker explained that this was urgent, and that he and his police and fire leaders had assessed their need. He pleaded to try to figure out how to overcome the obstacles, which to him seemed insignificant in the face of a spreading global pandemic.

He asked that his request be passed along to Salovey.

His next call was to Steven Kaplan, the president of the University of New Haven, a smaller, less famous, less rich school in West Haven, one town over. Elicker and Kaplan had met once before, got along well, and exchanged cell-phone numbers.

Photo credit: Courtesy UNH

“I immediately responded that we would accommodate them any way we could,” says Kaplan, who at the time was not aware that Elicker had called Yale. “In the last twenty-five years, we've developed into an international powerhouse in public safety, criminal justice, fire science, forensic science. So when he asked me to help out with law enforcement and firefighters, it was just a natural yes.”

The following Tuesday, March 24, according to Elicker, he heard back from Salovey’s office: The answer was still no.

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By that time, workers at the University of New Haven were already carefully removing students’ belongings out of residence halls and sterilizing rooms. The university is covering all costs, according to Kaplan—despite looking at a multimillion dollar loss this year in refunded room and board.

“Normally I wouldn't worry about the expenses, but if the city's in a position to reimburse us for all of those things, fine,” Kaplan says. “And if they’re not, given the crisis that we’re facing, we’re happy to help.”

For its part, Yale, which has a total enrollment of 13,400, according to its website, says the school simply couldn’t comply given the short timeline. According to a Yale spokesperson: “The rooms still contain the students' belongings, but we have teams planning to empty them so that they could be used. We’re pursuing schemes that involve professional movers and packers and using temporary storage. That process will take weeks, as all of the residence halls on campus are filled with the students’ belongings. But as soon as we’ve been able to clear any space, we’ve informed the mayor that we will let him know. We wish the situation was different, but because our students had already gone home for spring break, when we implemented our social distancing restrictions, the rooms just weren’t ready for others to live in them.”

Salovey was not available for comment at press time.

UNH, which has a total enrollment of 6,800, offered a tour of its residence halls to New Haven fire chief John Alston and chief of police Otoniel Reyes.

“They rolled out the red carpet for us. Having a place for folks who are asymptomatic but concerned that they may have been exposed—where do we keep them for fourteen days? If someone takes a test today, all the labs are backed up, so we may not get the results for four to five, maybe six days. What do you do with that person?” says Alston, who oversees a department of nearly 370 firefighters who serve a city with a population of about 137,000. “UNH said, ‘We’ve got dormitories. They can stay here.’ We’re not going to put anyone there who’s COVID-positive, obviously. But if we need to observe someone, it’s exactly what we need.”

Dorms will also be used by police and fire personnel who live far from the city, or whose family members may be positive.

The city’s agreement with UNH—which was founded in 1920, on the Yale campus—is open-ended.

Photo credit: Courtesy of UNH

Yale was founded in 1701 and has a long history with New Haven. While much of its real estate is nontaxable, much of it does generate tax revenue for the city. Its mere presence supports local businesses and the arts. “It’s always important to acknowledge that New Haven benefits a lot from Yale,” says Elicker. He feels, however, that the school could do more—and said so during his campaign for mayor last year.

“I talked a lot about the strong feeling of my own, and many, many people in the community, that Yale should play a much more prominent role in helping the city,” he says.

UNH expects to have rooms ready within a few days

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