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Without Y Housing, It's Time For Plan C

COMMENTARY by Helen Ubiñas
October 20, 2005

The two men sitting on the benches in Bushnell Park laugh when they hear the YMCA across the street is getting out of the housing business.

"Hey, at least we'll have the same view when we get kicked to the curb," Marco Vasquez says. "Just from a different angle."

When you're down on your luck, the men say, you need your sense of humor - as Vasquez has discovered lately. After he and his wife divorced a few years ago, he came to Hartford and found the job market - he's a landscaper - a little leaner than he expected. By the time he sends most of what he makes to his wife and kids - and he's not complaining - there's not much left. Definitely not enough for a security deposit on an apartment. Sometimes that means he sleeps in the park or, when he's really desperate, a shelter. But when he can, he heads for the Y.

"Guess it's time for Plan B," he said.

I wish him luck. But that's just it - for a lot of people, the Y is Plan B.

It's the safety net for someone caught between apartments, the step up for someone working her way out of a shelter. As of sometime next year, there will be 125 fewer second chances in the city.

It's hard to fault the Y in this, although housing advocates all over the city were Wednesday. It's a great organization that has served people well in many ways for many years. Who can blame them for converting a valuable asset - land along the park - into money to open new facilities and run programs in the city's neighborhoods?

Tom Reynolds, the Y's vice president for development services, says the organization would work with all the current residents to find them good housing alternatives. My fear is, that's easier said than done.

These folks aren't charity cases - they're paying $140 to $175 a week to stay at the Y. But that doesn't go far in a region where the fair market rent on a two-bedroom apartment is approaching $900 a month.

Even if enough affordable housing existed, many of the Y's residents can't make it in traditional apartment living, for any of a million reasons. Their incomes might be sporadic; they might be physically or mentally incapable of maintaining their own home; they might, like one long-term resident I talked to, just be disinclined to undergo the hassle.

"I'm extremely comfortable here," said Laurie Young, who has lived at the Y for 11 years.

The homeless shelters are the last resort; people like Vasquez would rather live on the streets. Even if they get desperate enough to go to the shelters, there may not be enough room: Immaculate Conception Shelter on Park Street just opened for the winter; it's turning away 10 to 20 people a night, and it's not even cold yet.

There is an alternative: supportive housing, combining affordable rents with social services. And after fighting for years, Mayor Eddie Perez and Roseanne Haggerty, executive director of Common Ground, are working together to develop supportive housing in the city.

"I know we have a tough housing situation in the city," Perez said. "And a lot of people are working hard to deal with it."

Haggerty said Wednesday she might be able to announce a site for 100 units of supportive housing in the next month or so - good news after three years of work in the city.

But do the math: Without the 125 rooms at the Y, that gain suddenly becomes a loss.

"I was a lot more excited about the announcement before I heard about this," Haggerty said.

At the front desk Wednesday, another guest at the Y who gave his name as just Tom was looking for some change for the vending machine when he heard the news.

He was surprised, he said. But he's been in this situation before. He used to live in a subsidized apartment in Groton, and then Pfizer bought some real estate in his neighborhood. His rent skyrocketed, the subsidy stayed the same.

He lived in his car until a local shelter helped set him up at the Y four months ago.

If worse comes to worse, he said, he'll live in his car again.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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