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September 25, 2023

CT lawmakers warn of brewing ‘humanitarian crisis’ for homeless population

GINNY MONK / CT MIRROR Sarah Fox, chief executive officer at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, speaks about the need for more money for the state's homeless response system on Friday, Sept. 22 in Hartford. Lawmakers and a state official stand nearby.

Lawmakers on Friday painted a grim picture of the coming winter for the state’s homeless residents — one in which funding is likely to be insufficient for meeting the needs of a growing and vulnerable population as temperatures drop.

During the last legislative session, homelessness service providers asked for $50 million to offer raises to underpaid staff, annualize cold weather funding and support the 211 system. Providers instead got $5 million for the cold weather funding, much less than what they say they need to offer shelter through the winter.

Lawmakers, service providers and state officials gathered Friday in Hartford to drive home the importance of addressing what they said was a “humanitarian crisis.”

“There is warning before destruction,” said Rep. Corey Paris, D-Stamford, at a Friday press conference. “And I think that with the case of homelessness, there is a cycle warning that we’re not paying attention to, that will cause bigger challenges in the future that we’re not going to be able to put back into this box that seems to be unraveling.”

The last annual count of the state’s homeless population showed there were 3,015 people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2023, although providers have said that internal state data shows that number is an undercount.

Online data shows that the emergency shelters in the state served about 5,500 people in 2022, and the state Department of Education counted 5,093 students experiencing homelessness in the 2022-23 school year.

Homelessness has been on the rise for the past couple of years in Connecticut after several years of a downward trend. Providers say people are staying longer in shelters and struggling to find housing they can afford, putting additional strain on the system. 

Connecticut typically opens cold weather shelters in November. These are extra shelter beds available to prevent people living outside from getting hypothermia. In addition to the cost of running the shelters, providers often offer transportation to the shelters, particularly in the state’s more rural areas.

The $5 million will be divvied up among regional coordinated access networks, or the groups of shelters that work in conjunction in the state, based on certain factors including how many people they serve. They’ll have to fundraise to earn the rest of what they need, said Kara Capone, chief executive officer at Community Housing Advocates, Inc. in Hartford.

The problem is compounded because providers still don’t know how soon they’ll get their share of the money or precisely how much they’ll receive, Capone said.

Department of Housing Deputy Commissioner Brandon McGee said it should be released soon and that state processes take time. He added that the department is opening new vouchers for families living in shelters and pointed to the investments the state made in various housing programs during the last legislative session.

The legislature appropriated millions in bonding money over the next two years for housing needs. In addition to the $5 million for cold weather, the state budget also contains $2 million in flexible spending for homelessness and additional dollars for the 211 system.

Asked about the timeline for the vouchers, McGee hedged.

“A lot of our folks in this space already are providing those resources. We’re adding to the resources that they have,” he said.

He also said the $5 million won’t be enough to sustain services through the winter and deferred to legislators when asked about the plan after those funds run dry.

“Of course it isn’t [sufficient],” he said. “But it’s the money that’s been appropriated, and we want to get that $5 million out to the streets, to the woods, to ensure that folks have the proper resources that will support those who are unhoused.”

Lawmakers didn’t elaborate on specific plans, but said the $5 million should already be out to the coordinated access networks.

“We’re less than two months away from opening,” said Rep. Jay Case, R-Winsted, who also serves on the board of a local service provider. “And we don’t have money to rent a place yet, we still have to put that place together, we have to get the fire inspections, we have to get the health inspector. We have a lot of inspections that take a long time to do.”

“Those dollars were appropriated. Those dollars need to be released.”

Several lawmakers from across the aisle gathered Friday to say they would push for more money in the upcoming legislative session, including leaders of the Housing Committee. The next regular legislative session is scheduled to begin in February.

“We can’t have a third year in a row where we can find money for tax cuts, but we can’t find money to stop homelessness from rising in our state,” said Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester, co-chair of the Housing Committee. “We just can’t.”

Rep. Tony Scott, R-Monroe, and Case also spoke in favor of additional funds to address homelessness. Case, ranking member of the Human Services Committee, said the state was “on the fast lane to a cliff,” with the fall-off after federal COVID money is spent.

Last year, many services for homeless people were paid for in part by federal COVID relief money. Case is among those who have expressed concern that services will start to drop off as money dries up.

Rep. Bobby Sanchez, D-New Britain, said much of the problem with increased homelessness in Connecticut can be traced to a lack of housing that’s affordable to people with low incomes. 

“When we go into session next year, I really think we need to talk about the issues that are in front of us, and we need to invest more in low-income housing and add more dollars … into the homeless shelters throughout the state of Connecticut because we need that money,” Sanchez said. “We need it not now, we need it yesterday.”

Sarah Fox, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said the system is grateful for the $5 million for cold weather funding, but needs more. Homeless shelters are losing staff, she said, which makes the work harder for those who remain.

“Everyone here today understands the issue, that we’re going to work all together,” Fox said. “Homelessness is certainly solvable. We have numbers that are well within reach, although rising, so we can do something now to save lives today.”

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