Affordable housing remains an intractable problem for those on the economic brink

Abigail Pheiffer/The Day Anthea Ramkissoon, left, cries and expresses frustration over trying to find transportation to her new job as she talks to Donie Jarmon, the program coordinator for Bethsaida Community's Homeless Women Deserve Treatment program, as they stand in front of St. Vincent de Paul Place in Norwich. Jarmon prepares to give Ramkissoon a pair of sneakers for Ramkissoon's son that Jarmon's son is no longer wearing. “If I can help them, I'll help them — whether they are a client or not,” said Jarmon.

A new effort to get homeless women off the street and into housing, treatment, counseling and jobs relies on a network of contacts that stretches beyond the program's intended New London County boundaries for the one component that is hardest to find: affordable housing.

It's spearheaded by Bethsaida Community Inc., a 24-year-old agency based in Norwich that's dedicated to helping women who leave abusive relationships or have lost their homes in other ways.

Bethsaida last fall received a five-year, $350,000-per-year federal grant to provide services to 545 homeless women - 150 in the first year - in a program the agency calls Homeless Women Deserve Treatment. Halfway through the first year, 129 are active clients.

The grant pays for a bare-bones office in downtown Norwich and some medical treatment for women who have no insurance. The grant also covers stipends to eight partner agencies working with Bethsaida and salaries for caseworkers who help clients find apartments or rooms in supportive or transitional housing programs.

But the funding does not pay for that housing, Bethsaida Executive Director Claire Silva said. Nor does it pay for furniture, clothing and food - some women lost everything through evictions or repossessions - as they try to get settled back into society.

"In our region, we need more affordable housing," Silva said. "We're working with landlords. We had a couple of clients get apartments together. A big thing is getting them jobs in this economy, especially for women with troubles."

For Norwich women, the city's Human Services Department, a Bethsaida partner agency, can help through donated gift cards and small grants the agency has for emergency food or rental assistance, said Lee Ann Gomes, social services supervisor. Bethsaida caseworkers call her daily, she said.

Norwich Human Services Director Beverly Goulet, a longtime advocate for affordable and supportive housing, said she fears the problem will worsen. About 70,000 Connecticut residents will exhaust unemployment benefits this year, she said. Many young adults graduating from college also will be seeking jobs and apartments.

"We certainly have a number of landlords who try to work with us, but their expenses are so high," Goulet said. "We have a lot of very, very good landlords, property owners in this city. But they've got to pay their bills."

Eva Vega, case manager in Bethsaida's homeless women's program, said she has been reaching out to shelters in Willimantic and Danielson in recent months trying to help clients who need immediate housing. Local shelters are full or have waiting lists. Bethsaida's own Katie Blair House transitional program has only eight beds. Two of Vega's clients got lucky and found openings there, she said, but she and other caseworkers spend part of their days combing classified ads and calling programs throughout the region for available space.

Statewide problem

David Fink, policy director at Hartford-based Partnership for Strong Communities, said the numbers tell the story.

Connecticut has 1.4 million households, Fink said, about 1 million of them homeowners. The remaining 400,000 are renters, 48 percent of whom spend more than the federally recommended limit of 30 percent of their income on housing. And 27 percent of them earn less than half the state's median income level, which means they spend more than half of their incomes on housing.

"These people are close to being homeless," Fink said. "When the (car) goes, they do the sensible thing and get it fixed so they don't lose their job, and they skip the rent, and then the landlord says 'get out.'"

According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition report "Out of Reach 2011," 117,441 of the renter households are "severely burdened," spending more than half their incomes on housing.

The housing crash added to the demand for rental housing. Banks foreclosed on homeowners, who then became renters, and families who can afford to buy a home found that banks are requiring much higher deposits.

"There are very, very many people at risk of being homeless," Fink said.

"It's not hard to understand how people can become homeless. They don't have any income, and they can't afford to pay the rent. It's a problem that's brought on by economics, not enough supply and too much demand."

How to help

Bethsaida Community Inc. is seeking tax-deductible donations for items not covered in a new federal grant to serve homeless women in New London County.

Gift cards for local clothing and grocery stores

Individually wrapped snacks

Bottled water

Southeast Area Transit bus tickets

Coffee shop gift cards

Toiletries

Socks, hats, gloves

Money: Checks should be made out to Bethsaida Community Inc. with HWDT in the memo

Jobs: Part-time, full-time, temporary or permanent

Apartments: Many of the women have some income but can't afford full-price rent.

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