The opposition to locating a winter homeless shelter in a church basement smack in the middle of Hartford’s downtown business district — and next door to the Hartford Business Journal’s offices — sounds a lot like a NIMBY (“Not-In-My-Backyard’’) argument.
Those who oppose the use of the church basement to house the homeless on cold winter nights maintain that a homeless shelter in downtown Hartford will interfere with the city’s economic development efforts.
They don’t object to the shelter; they just don’t want it to be located in the basement of Center Church on Lewis and Gold streets, a prime piece of Hartford real estate located across from Bushnell Park. The church is adjacent to the city’s historic Ancient Burial Ground, close to residential high-rise towers and office buildings with acres of Class A space.
Opponents to the downtown shelter should reconsider their position.
Housing the homeless in a temporary shelter within the Central Business District actually presents an opportunity to shine the light on how we — as a community, as lawmakers and as business people — should do better.
Establishing the shelter in a location where the homeless can’t be ignored forces the business community to examine the reasons for homelessness and the costs to them as taxpayers. It may force them to advocate long-term solutions that actually work.
A shelter is just a Band-Aid for homelessness. It does nothing to curtail it or stem the related costs to taxpayers.
The timing of the homeless debate couldn’t be better. It coincides with an upcoming special legislative session focused on a projected $549 million state budget gap.
As budget cuts are considered, the business community must demand real reform as to how state government operates. They must insist that lawmakers consider long-term solutions to societal problems that will cost less now and in the future.
That means comparing the costs of prison diversionary programs and supportive housing, which have successful records of stemming homelessness, versus the cost of incarceration along with recidivism rates. According to the state Department of Correction’s 2009 report, 67 percent of former inmates were arrested for new offenses within three years of release from prison; 56 percent were reincarcerated; and 36.7 percent received new prison sentences for fresh offenses. In fiscal year 2009, the total cost of incarceration was $710.1 million.
Any business that failed 67 percent — or even more than a third — of the time, would not be considered viable. It shouldn’t be acceptable for a taxpayer-funded program.
This past year, state funding was cut for supportive housing, creating a short-sighted saving of $35 million by not building 150 new apartments and not spending $6 million on mental health services. Incarceration costs about $34,000 a year per inmate; supportive housing costs $19,000.
It is estimated that at least one prisoner in three is a nonviolent offender who suffers from mental illness or addiction and would benefit far more from a diversionary program and supportive housing.
Take Open Hearth a men’s shelter in Hartford, which addresses substance abuse, joblessness and mental illness and has a successful record of getting its clients on track. In addition, the nonprofit has a unique homeownership program, an example of what can be done.
Criminalizing problems that contribute to homelessness does nothing but perpetuate the problem. A nonviolent criminal record becomes a huge barrier to gainful employment, a requisite to affording a home. Lawmakers should consider expunging nonviolent records if the individual has not become a repeat offender during a three-year period.
As members of the business community debate about where to place a “no-freeze’’ shelter, they should lobby lawmakers on changing state policies that contribute to creating homelessness.