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New Tack On Homeless Problem: Keep People In Homes, Out Of Shelters

MONICA POLANCO

November 28, 2009

Connecticut has received nearly $17 million to participate in a national experiment to try to stop homelessness in its tracks.

The federal money is designed to help people before they become homeless a major shift from the nation's decadeslong reliance on shelters. The new approach, experts say, spares people from the trauma of uprooting their families and moving into shelters, which often triggers a domino effect that makes it difficult for them to regain their independence.

The state's allotment $10.8 million for the state Department of Social Services and $6 million for Hartford, New Britain, Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury is part of a $1.5 billion Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program approved as part of the federal stimulus package in February.

The program reflects a growing recognition that of the millions of people across the country who become homeless, most are homeless for 20 to 30 days and could have avoided it with immediate help, said Dennis Culhane, a social policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant for the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

Policymakers and advocates are hoping that the initiative whose results will be closely monitored will help slow the rising tide of people who are losing their homes because of the recession.

Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is overseeing the program, said he hopes it will become a model for combating homelessness.

"It really is a radical next step in the broader efforts to meet the needs" of homeless people, Donovan said during a conference call with reporters. "If we can reach a family with a relatively small investment like a security deposit, we can potentially save significant amounts of money around the shelter systems."

A Specific Population

The program is not designed for the chronically homeless, but for people who would be homeless without emergency help and who will be financially independent after that intervention. Services include temporary rental assistance, security and utility deposits, help finding an apartment and legal help for those facing eviction.

"It really helps people to get over the hump into housing, and they've got to figure out how to make it work," said Ron Krom, executive director of St. Vincent DePaul Place in Middletown.

The state Department of Social Services is using a network of public and private social service agencies to evaluate applicants and get them help. The money which goes directly to applicants' creditors must be used in the next three years, but the demand has been so high that Carol Walter, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, predicted that the cash would run out in a year. Walter estimated that 2,000 households in Connecticut will receive help.

DSS has hired Walter's group to provide training and technical assistance and to collect data, which will be used to track the program's effectiveness.

"We'll be able to hone and improve upon this system over time," Culhane, the consultant,said. "For some people, they may need less assistance than they got and other people may need more assistance than they got."

The state's 211 information hot line has been inundated with calls. The interest, multiplied by word of mouth, has created a backlog as agencies try to find time to interview applicants, collect proof of eligibility and become familiar with program rules. The hot line has identified about 750 eligible applicants, though checks have been cut for fewer than 100 since the program began in October.

'I'm Absolutely Happy'

Among their successes is LisaLee Garcia, who moved to Connecticut from Florida this year to earn more money, but struggled to find an affordable apartment. When she could no longer stay with relatives, Garcia paid her mother $80 a week to keep her toddler overnight and slept in an abandoned house or on the street.

A leasing employee referred her to St. Vincent DePaul Place, where Garcia learned that she qualified for the federal program.

Three weeks later, Garcia's new landlord received a check for Garcia's security deposit and half of the first month's rent, $1,250 in all. Garcia contributed $500 and moved into her sunny one-bedroom apartment Nov. 3.

"I'm absolutely happy," she said recently. "I love my apartment."

An employee at a Subway restaurant, Garcia is confident that she'll be able to pay her $750 rent, starting with her first full payment in January. She also receives $570 a month in state aid for her and her 23-month-old son, Joshua Castro. She said she would work longer hours or get a second job if she needs extra money.

St. Vincent DePaul Place will check on her and report the outcome of her case to the federal government.

"She'll do whatever it takes to be able to sustain moving forward," Krom said, noting that the federal government wants 80 percent of program recipients to remain financially independent. Approving the right candidates, Krom said, will be key.

The pace has been stunning, said Walter, the Connecticut Coalition To End Homelessness director. "This time last year, no one knew that these funds were even going to exist," she said.

But Connecticut's leaders and homeless advocates were ready because they had been talking about this kind of program for nearly two years, Culhane said.

DSS began a similar pilot program nearly two years ago and was pleased with the results, said Pamela Giannini, director of DSS' Aging, Community and Social Work Services division. The program, Counselors in Shelters Rapid Exit, served about 275 households with $396,945 in state money.

A Local Variation

The federal money will run out, but the Middlesex County Coalition on Housing and Homelessness plans to continue a similar program that it began a year ago with $32,000.

Unlike the federal program, the local initiative is limited to people who need one-time cash assistance to avoid homelessness, said Kevin Wilhelm, executive director of Middlesex United Way. The program, run by volunteers and administered by Middlesex United Way, also requires less paperwork and is speedier.

The coalition's homelessness prevention fund recently received a private $60,000 grant for the next three years that it must match.

The group has helped 24 families, paying an average of $650, Wilhelm said. Those outlays included paying a family's back car tax so they could continue driving to work and $1,275 in back rent for a couple who had to chose between paying their medical bills and paying their rent.

Similar efforts are going on across the country as homeless advocates spread the word about what works and what doesn't, Walter said.

Advocates, she said, have long known that shelters don't stop homelessness. Research has contributed to the burgeoning national movement to help people find or keep their housing rather than waiting for them to end up in shelters, she said.

"It's the confluence of advocacy, of opportunity and of the will of government to say, 'Yeah, we want to try this,'"

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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