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We Need More Affordable Housing For 'Grandfamilies'

Column By SUSAN CAMPBELL

February 17, 2008

Sitting at community meetings in the last few years, Elizabeth Horton Sheff started noticing the older faces of grandparents in the audience.

Elders were coming to ask for help, says Sheff, the Community Renewal Team's director of community services. Already financially strapped, many of them were slipping off the financial edge when they found themselves back in parenting mode, raising grandchildren.

In response, the agency's Grandfamily Housing Development opened last year in northeast Hartford, in a neighborhood where the median income is $20,000. The affordable-housing campus includes 40 units 16 at the old Clark Street School (former home of the Artists Collective), 24 in new townhouses nearby on Barbour Street. The cost of the subsidized housing is based on the grandparents' income and size of household.

The project is a joint city, state and federal effort, and we need more of them.

Nationally, about 4.5 million children are being raised by their grandparents. In Connecticut, about 21,000 children are in grandparent-led households, or nearly 5 percent of the children who live in the state.

That's a lot of kids, but most advocates say those numbers may only reflect half of the number of "grandfamilies" in the state. To live on Hartford's campus, elders must have legal custody of at least one grandchild. For many elders, their care-giving may be 24/7, but the family has not gone through the courts to make anything official. Far more grandparents are doing the heavy lifting than exists on paper. According to CRT, some school principals say grandparents outnumber parents at parent meetings.

And their numbers are growing. Advocates say as many as eight times the number of children live with their grandparents than live in the foster-care system. Those families usually need some help, and we should be knocking ourselves out to give it to them.

"If you really think about it," says Sheff, "these grandparents are coming to the rescue of the children, but they are really coming to the rescue of our governmental system. If all these kids were involved in DCF, it would bankrupt the system."

Janis Johnson, 63, moved to the complex in September with her grandson, 16, and granddaughter, 15. Before she got a car, Johnson endured mileslong walks to get her grandson to tutoring, school events and other places the bus line didn't go.

"I have put my feet on ground I would never walk on for my grandson," says Johnson. "I have told him that. I have told him, 'I hope you are grateful.'"

The numbers of grandfamilies have increased in recent years, due to parents becoming ill, going to jail or struggling with addiction. Parents may also return to school, join the military or otherwise remove themselves from child-rearing duties.

At an open house last month, Carmen Sanford, program manager, gives a tour of the apartments. Speaking in English and Spanish, she shows the one-bedroom, light-filled homes on Clark Street, and jokes that she's already chosen her new favorite, a one-bedroom with a small loft. Downstairs are community rooms with a big screen TV, and the beginnings of a children's library. Some students plan to paint murals on the white walls. There are also plans for life-skills training, a social-services liaison.

Across the way, neat town houses anchor a corner that was recently an abandoned lot littered with broken glass. Sanford says the idea is that grandparents live in the town houses for as long as they have their grandchildren, and then they will be helped to buy their own homes. Or they can move into the one-bedroom apartments in the old school.

The tour group includes three grandparents. At the town houses, one says that moving day would be a breeze for him and his wife. They only have a bed and a couch.

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.
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