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Point-In-Time Count: Number Of Homeless Families In Rural/Suburban Connecticut Up 33 Percent From Last Year

MONICA POLANCO

September 28, 2009

HARTFORD - The number of homeless families in Connecticut's rural and suburban areas rose by at least 33 percent from 2008 to 2009, and many of them said the high cost of rental housing was to blame.

The news, released last week by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, is part of a national trend and confirms what local experts feared after volunteers canvassed the state Jan. 28 to count the number of people living in shelters and outdoors. This year's snapshot, while valuable to homeless advocates, might underestimate the full extent of the problem because it does not record changes throughout the year, said Carol Walter, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. Volunteers counted 4,154 homeless people in the state just over half of them single adults.

The third annual point-in-time count, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, showed that a significant number of working families became homeless because of rental costs, and that many of the families' adults have at least a high school diploma, Walter said. Nearly 60 percent of those adults said they had no history of hospitalizations for mental illness or substance abuse, while more single homeless adults reported being hospitalized for those reasons.

The count also showed homelessness decreasing in urban areas, which might be a sign that permanent supportive housing programs which provide social services and employment assistance are helping, Walter said.

Overall, the number of homeless people fell from 4,221 last year to 4,154 this year. The number of homeless families fell from 482 last year to 430 this year.

Those numbers suggest that homelessness is decreasing, but a review of the past three years of point-in-time counts shows that homelessness in Connecticut has "hit a plateau that is too high," Walter said. She predicted that the number of homeless people will rise.

She also acknowledged that the point-in-time numbers are just one tool to measure homelessness and should not be used alone, but said the accumulation of that data over the past three years has given her group a fuller picture of the problem in Connecticut.

For the first time this year, analysts saw a sharp increase in family homelessness in rural and suburban areas. Volunteers counted 61 homeless families this year, up from 46 last year.

Those numbers are relatively small, but they point to a trend that could increase as families continue to struggle under the weight of high rents and problems brought on by the recession, said Natalie Matthews, assistant director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

"Traditionally, homelessness has been viewed as an urban problem and something for major cities to handle on their own," Matthews said. "It's going to become less and less plausible for folks to say, 'It's not something that affects my community.'"

Connecticut leaders must create more homelessness prevention programs, affordable housing and subsidized housing vouchers for the poor, Walter said. Those solutions, she said, are cheaper than housing people in shelters.

"We know a lot about what's working in Connecticut," she said. "I think it's a matter of making the commitment to invest in our future."

Some additional help is on the way. This fall, the state Department of Social Services will begin distributing nearly $17 million in federal money to programs statewide for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing. Rapid re-housing is designed to keep those in danger of becoming homeless out of shelters by providing various short-term and medium-term services, including help paying back utilities, rent or housing court disputes.

This year's count took place on a cold, wet wintry day the kind of weather that often prompts homeless people to stay with friends or relatives rather than trudge back to a shelter, Walter said.

Of the families interviewed that day, 78 percent reported having a source of income and 60 percent of the adults in families reported having at least a high school diploma. Forty-three percent of families told volunteers that they had to leave their residences because of rent problems or evictions.

There are nearly 4,400 supportive housing units in more than 80 urban and suburban communities throughout the state, but Walter said that many more are needed. A statewide campaign called Reaching Home aims to build 10,000 permanent supportive housing units by 2014.

In January, shelters throughout the state averaged a 101 percent occupancy rate.

"That is a very frightening statistic," Walter said. "When you're at even 80 percent [capacity], you essentially don't have an emergency shelter because that means you're full."

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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