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How one Milford, CT, shelter is fighting the link between housing insecurity and poorer health

Protesters march around City Hall in Chelsea, Ma., in 2020 urging state lawmakers to pass legislation to extend the moratorium on evictions during a rally in Chelsea Wednesday evening.
Matthew J. Lee / Boston Globe
Protesters march around City Hall in Chelsea, Mass., in 2020, urging state lawmakers to pass legislation to extend the moratorium on evictions.

As home and rental prices rise, several recent studies added to a wide body of research that links housing insecurity to worsening health outcomes.

With inflation close to 8% and home values increasing, working people across Connecticut are being priced out of the housing market.

Rhonda Nelson Sheffield walked along her tree-lined street in Newhallville, a New Haven neighborhood known for its industrial past. Nearby is the Monterey on Dixwell Avenue, which had a glorious jazz history and hosted the likes of Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. Most houses here have tiny, picture-postcard porches – but almost all need repair. Nelson Sheffield rents the ground floor of one such house, across from where she grew up.

“[The] cream house over here is the one that I grew up in,” she said. “I was practically born here; I think I moved there when I was 1.”

Nelson Sheffield said she’s worked all her life, and for the past 40 years with Sargent Manufacturing, where she recently was promoted to manager. But with three kids to raise on her own, it “was kind of difficult at the time to, you know, get up enough money and do the things that you needed to do to get a home,” she said.

She shares her rental with her son – a small business owner – and young grandson. On the cramped floor, plastic bags overflow with possessions. Nelson Sheffield’s mother visits daily and watches TV in the living room. She lives with a brain tumor and is afraid to lie down, even to sleep. So she’s sitting up, ramrod straight.

“Every time that I would see a property that was for sale in the neighborhood, before you could either look at it or put a bid in on it, it was already taken,” Nelson Sheffield said. “Most of them were bought by management companies or by some outside Realtor from out of the state, mostly New York. And then, they’re outbidding you so that you can’t even afford the property. My price point was between 200 [thousand dollars] and 250. Once they started bidding on those properties, they were going on well over 300.”  

Her situation is emblematic of the housing divide in Connecticut. The American dream of homeownership is out of reach of working people like her, and then there are the people priced out of the rental market.

Under federal guidelines, a household whose rent exceeds 30% of its gross income is considered rent-burdened. According to the Connecticut Data Collaborative, there are 77 towns statewide where the average rent-to-income ratio exceeds 30%. In Woodstock, Somers, Haddam, Middlefield and Mansfield, the rent burden exceeds 45%.

Data show that housing affordability affects public health. A new study found that housing insecurity may worsen outcomes among cancer patients. Another study found that kidney diseases also worsen with housing insecurity. And respondents in a Michigan study who experienced eviction were more likely to meet the criteria for depression.

“We know that people who are homeless tend to have higher rates of psychosis, of substance use disorders, of depression,” said Dr. Neha Jain, associate professor of psychiatry at UConn Health. “We also know that the mortality rates, whether because of physical illnesses but also due to suicide, are actually much higher in the homeless population.”

Across the country, housing advocates are working on solutions. In fact, hospitals and health systems in California, Kansas, Idaho, Illinois and Maryland have invested in housing projects in their communities, according to the American Hospital Association.

In Milford, Conn., Jennifer Paradis, executive director of the Beth-El homeless shelter, is looking to examples of home-share programs in Vermont and Washington state. Paradis herself experienced homeless in high school, couch-surfing while her parents lived in a van after they lost their house. Paradis believes that they both would have likely lived longer if only they’d had stable housing.

“I was so scared that I wasn’t going to be able to afford a home on my own,” she said. “I mean, it definitely is something that feels like it is outside of the grasp for my generation.”

But Paradis, 35, was able to buy a home in 2019, co-housing with two other housemates, Ben and Alexa, who rented rooms.

Jennifer Paradis, executive director of the Beth-El Center, a homeless shelter and food program in Milford.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Jennifer Paradis is executive director of the Beth-El Center, a homeless shelter and food program in Milford.

“Their rent went directly to paying my mortgage, and I was able to, No. 1, afford moving into a home, but also maintain utilities and respond to homeownership issues,” Paradis said. “Like the day that I came home and my oil tank was cracked and I had a puddle of oil in my basement. That was an expense that would have wiped my savings completely clean if not for having this supplemental income of co-housing.”

Inspired by her own success, she’s expanding the co-housing model. The goal is to move people out of the Beth-El homeless shelter to live in the houses of Milford senior citizens for a nominal rent.

“In Milford, there can be up to four folks who are not blood-related in one housing unit,” she said. “And it’s really just about finding the right match. Similarities in lifestyle and interests are going to be key in this area.”

Paradis said most of the shelter’s residents work and can afford rent under this model. Senior citizens are signing up for a pilot program. She says it’s not so much about income for them – but a hopefully pleasant solution for loneliness.

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.

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