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Homeless In Connecticut: More Families Seeking Shelter In Recession

MONICA POLANCO

March 14, 2009

Sandra Rivera arrived at the homeless shelter in January with clothes, linens and two of her three children.

After seven years in her Asylum Hill apartment in Hartford, Rivera, 36, had just been evicted.One night, she knelt by her bed at the shelter and prayed.

"I left it in God's hands to find a place," she said.

The face of homelessness is changing in Connecticut and across the country. Although the number of individuals who are homeless hasn't changed, more and more of those crowding into the few shelters that will take them are families.When volunteers canvassed the state on Jan. 30, 2008, they found that families made up 32 percent of the 4,366 homeless people in Connecticut. The number of homeless families had jumped 12 percent to 482 from 2007.

Rivera is one of the lucky ones. After two months of living at South Park Inn with her two older children, she recently moved into an apartment. However, homeless advocates think that 2009 numbers will be worse than last year's. They are waiting for the results of the annual count, taken in January, to see if they're right.

For every family that leaves a shelter, many wait to take their place. Last year, South Park turned away 2,110 women and children because all of its 40 beds for families were occupied, said Brian Baker, the shelter's assistant director. The shelter also has 45 beds for men, who are housed separately.

Because the staff doesn't always record every unsuccessful phone call from people seeking shelter, the actual number of those turned away could be higher.

A Housing Deficit

Solutions to homelessness, always hard to come by, are even more elusive during a recession. But most experts agree that the overwhelming problem in the region is a shortage of affordable housing, rental housing and supportive housing which includes long-term support for people once they have moved into their own apartment.

Housing is considered "affordable" when it costs no more than 30 percent of a household's income, said Diane Randall, director of the Hartford-based Partnership for Strong Communities. In 2007, 24 percent of renters statewide earned less than half the state's median income of $65,967 and spent more than half of their income on housing, according to U.S. Census figures.

Experts also note that the recession has increased the competition between poor families and middle-class families for cheaper rental housing and lower-wage jobs.

"When you're unemployed and looking for a job, people who were in a much higher-paying profession are now forced to look for entry-level and clerical work," said Carol Walter, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. "That's less entry-level work for those who have fewer skills."

"If you're living paycheck to paycheck and you lose your paycheck, you have no cushion," Walter said. "You have no savings. You have fewer assets."

Many homeless families can't stay with friends and relatives because they, too, are being buffeted by the recession. Some homeless families are also unable to stay with relatives who live in subsidized housing, where the number of tenants is restricted and closely monitored.

So, at least in the Hartford region, they turn to South Park Inn and My Sisters' Place, Hartford's only shelters that accept families. Some come from as far away as Enfield, where there is no shelter.

In The Inn

The typical family at South Park Inn, a former church on Main Street near Hartford Hospital, is made up of a mother in her mid- to late 20s with two children, usually 8 or 9 years old, Baker said. Many of the mothers have limited education and job skills, and about 15 percent receive child support. Many no longer qualify for welfare benefits, which run out after about two years.

They're all competing for the same limited pool of federal and state subsidies and programs. The wait for subsidized housing can stretch up to four years.

The families at South Park spend their evenings in a cozy, light-green common room. Mothers and children drift in and out as they prepare for bedtime. Lights-off times are strictly enforced: 8:30 for children; 11 for adults.

Sitting around the coffee table one night, the women discuss the difficulty of finding the services they need to regain their independence. They question society's priorities.

"You got all these abandoned houses," said Deborah Peters. "Why can't the government fix them up?"

Helaida Perez wondered about Hartford's new parking meters. "Where is the money coming from for that?" she asked.

The women are their own informal clearinghouses. They share information, and cheer each other up when their problems become overwhelming.

"We have families that are doing everything in their power to look for housing, look for available subsidies and are stuck here on waiting lists with really no options," Baker said.

Some Funding

Connecticut is expected to receive $16.9 million in federal stimulus money for homelessness-prevention services including rental assistance, help with paying security or utility deposits, and credit repair.

The state will also receive a $28.4 million federal grant to fund existing programs, including supportive housing, transitional living programs and emergency shelters. Of this, however, only $1.13 million is dedicated to new affordable housing statewide.

Francesca Martin, associate director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, said she's glad Connecticut will receive $28.4 million, but said the grant for new housing is too small.

She pointed to the Next Steps housing initiative, which included $35 million in state funds to build 150 to 200 housing units across the state. The initiative included about $6 million a year for mental health services and debt service payments, but Rell halted the funding in November because of the state budget crisis.

Compared with Next Steps, the new federal grant will barely touch the immense need, Martin said. "We're talking [only] $1 million here."

A Night At The Inn

There's a logjam in Sandra Rivera's brain. She presses a hand against her forehead, as if to put the memories in order.

She describes herself as a shadow of her former self. When she was well, she worked for 5 years for Yankee Gas, a job she loved.

"I've worked so good that customers would come in and bring me gifts," she said, a smile bounding across her face.

But, as is often the case, it was not one, but a series of problems that led to her becoming homeless. She became ill, was unable to work and lost custody of her youngest child, losing the child support payments that helped with her rent.

Rivera hasn't worked since 2007 because of her depression, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.

On Feb. 27, she signed a lease for a four-bedroom apartment. Her son's friend, who knew of the family's homelessness and of a vacant apartment, put her in touch with the landlord.

"I think it has to do with a blessing," she said.

She returned to the shelter that afternoon. Her two suitcases, two knapsacks and a linen bag were waiting on the beds her family no longer needed.

Angel, 15, her oldest son, who had been dropped off by the school bus, came barreling into the room, ready to repossess his life.

"How you feeling?" Rivera asked him as he grabbed a bag.

"Happy," he responded, before grabbing some bags and rushing from the room.

Downstairs, Perez opened her arms and hugged Rivera, rocking her back and forth.

Rivera got in her rust-eaten car and drove to her new apartment, a half-mile and a world away from the shelter.

She walked into her freshly painted apartment and looked at her new stove.

"I can smell it cooking already," she said.

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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