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CT homeless population rises for first time in years

Makeshift beds under the highway in the north end of Hartford.
Makeshift beds under the highway in the north end of Hartford.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Connecticut rose for the first time in nearly a decade, by about 13% from 2021 to 2022, according to a report released this week.

Over the past eight years, the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Connecticut had dropped, according to the 2021 report on the problem. This year, the number rose from 2,594 to 2,930, likely because of continued economic fallout from the pandemic paired with inflation costs and a lack of housing, experts said.

“I think a 13% increase in homelessness after essentially a decade of decrease year over year is really, really pretty devastating,” said Michele Conderino, executive director at Open Doors Community, a Norwalk-based homeless services provider.

Many of the state’s lower-income residents are struggling to recover economically and to find housing. And the numbers of unhoused people may increase in the coming months, providers said.

“I haven’t seen this in my 20 years working in Connecticut, this difficulty,” said David Rich, chief executive officer at the Housing Collective in Fairfield County.

Connecticut is divided into two "continuums of care" for the homeless population. In the Opening Doors Fairfield County Continuum of Care, 237 unhoused people were female and 365 were male; 280 were Black, 271 were white and just over 200 were Hispanic.

Despite the overall increase, the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness dropped by about 30% — from 167 to 117. People who are chronically homeless are unhoused for at least a year or in multiple instances and have a serious mental illness, substance abuse disorder or physical disability.

Providers attributed the drop to the state’s focus on an approach that prioritizes stable housing ahead of working on other problems.

People who experience chronic homelessness are disproportionately unsheltered, meaning they live outdoors or in places not meant for human habitation.

Connecticut’s numbers are based on the state’s annual point-in-time count. The count is a census of the homeless population, taken over the course of a day in January.

The pandemic changed how Connecticut's count is conducted.

Previously, service providers would send in the numbers of the people in shelters and others would go out to count and survey the population living outside. Since last year, the information has been collected from the Homeless Management Information System, a statewide database where service providers can enter information about clients. It’s supplemented by real-time data from programs.

The continuums of care submit the count information to the federal government. The data helps determine grant funding for providers.

‘More and more of an uptick’

Longstanding housing problems and new economic forces in Connecticut and nationwide have combined in recent months to create what advocates have called a “perfect storm” for those in poverty and experiencing homelessness.

Connecticut lacks about 85,400 units of rental housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income residents. And overall, only about 2% of the state’s rental units were available as of late August, giving Connecticut the lowest vacancy rate in the nation.

The exacerbated lack of housing is coinciding with inflation that has driven up common household costs such as groceries and rent.

President Joe Biden’s administration earlier this year urged municipalities to use American Rescue Plan Act money to address the lack of affordable housing and housing insecurity, but few Connecticut towns have done so.

The last federal data release showed only about 1% of municipal ARPA money had been allocated to housing-related issues. Some cities have since announced plans to use the money on housing.

New Haven on Wednesday announced its I’M HOME initiative that provides money for security deposits or down payments and closing costs for residents.

Still, more aid programs are needed, providers said.

When the statewide rental aid program stopped taking new applications in February, providers saw more people losing their homes. Just a few months before that, many of the pandemic-era protections for renters ended.

In Connecticut, evictions increased after the program stopped taking new applications. March saw the highest number of filings since the pandemic began.

“The people who are coming into shelter now were housed and [lost housing] either through evictions or being priced out of their housing,” Conderino said.

Few people who lose their housing enter the homeless service system immediately. First, they’ll try to stay with friends or family and call 211 for services, Rich said.

That means the number of calls to the hotline are often an indicator of housing instability, which can lead to homelessness. Over the past year, the line has had an average of about 1,000 calls every day related to housing and shelter, according to its data dashboard.

“I think we will see more and more of an uptick of folks that are in dire housing straits,” Rich said. “Unfortunately, I think that will continue to increase.”

During the pandemic, shelters were often trying to place people in hotels to avoid congregate living settings. Some people who were doubled up with friends or family decided to enter the system so they’d have their own spot and stay safer from the virus, Rich added.

And although housing vouchers or rent assistance is available in some cases in Fairfield County, where Rich focuses, it’s often hard for people to find an apartment.

“We have Section 8 vouchers, we have short-term, longer-term rapid rehousing supports,” he said. “Finding and navigating the housing market has really created more of a bottleneck.”

Housing first

Brennden Colbert, the point-in-time quality coordinator at Advancing Connecticut Together, said he thinks there was a drop in chronic homelessness because of pandemic-era supports available to social services groups. That’s added to existing efforts to address chronic homelessness in the state, he said.

Conderino attributed the drop in chronic homelessness to the state’s dedication to an approach called housing first. The policy says that the first priority for people experiencing homelessness should be to find housing. After that’s achieved, other issues such as substance abuse can be more easily addressed.

It also removes certain barriers such as a sobriety requirement to providing housing.

“You don’t have to address your substance abuse in the streets or in shelter. Get housing first and then address those issues,” Conderino said. “People are more likely to gain stability if they have consistency in their housing.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development adopted the policy in 2009, and it’s been a focus in Connecticut for several years. Since the state set a goal to end chronic homelessness, Conderino said, she’s seen stints of homelessness shrink — from sometimes more than a decade to close to a year.

“I’m convinced we can end chronic homelessness here in Connecticut in the next year or two,” Rich said.

Typically, when homelessness experts speak about ending homelessness for a group, they mean they want to reach what’s called “functional zero." This means the system can quickly provide housing for anyone in a certain population — such as veterans — experiencing homelessness.

But Rich said he believes the state can end chronic homelessness in the next few years with certain interventions and support.

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