Agency that helps homeless women reports progress, needs

Lee-Ann Gomes of Norwich Human Services asks a question during a Monday presentation by Claire Silva, executive director of Bethsaida. The program marked the mid point of Bethsaida's five-year federally funded effort to provide services to homeless women throughout New London County. The meeting was held at St. Vincent de Paul Place in Norwich.

Norwich - Since September 2010, 528 homeless women have been referred to Bethsaida Inc.'s Homeless Women Deserve Treatment program for services ranging from treatment for substance abuse, mental illness and physical illnesses to job training and placement counseling.

The small Norwich agency received a five-year grant of $350,000 per year from the federal Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration to reach out to homeless people in New London County.

About 30 representatives from a dozen regional and state human services agencies and local churches along with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney attended a program Monday to hear the halfway point results of the program.

To date, Bethsaida has spent $941,590 of the $1.75 million total grant and is working with 292 clients.

Many of the statistics were sobering, Bethsaida Executive Director Claire Silva said, which she said emphasizes the need for the program. Of the 292 active cases, 70 women have had homeless children living with them. Most referrals have come from the region's largest municipalities, Groton, New London and Norwich, but Silva said "pretty much all towns in southeastern Connecticut have referred at least one woman to the program."

The women have many obstacles to overcome, Silva and program case managers said. Fifty percent of clients have substance abuse problems, and 261, or 89 percent, have mental health problems. Thirty-four percent told case workers they have been victims of physical abuse as children, and 49 percent said they have been physically abused as adults.

With treatment, counseling and persistence by case managers, 33 percent of the clients have found permanent housing and 11 percent entered temporary transitional housing. Twenty-seven percent reported they had been drug and alcohol free for three months, and 40 percent after six months.

Without the pressure to buy drugs and alcohol, Silva said, 57 percent of clients reported they had not committed a crime after three months of joining the program, and 89 percent said they stayed crime-free after six months.

Courtney said those statistics prove the value of the program, keeping down costs in the criminal system and in society.

"It seems hard to believe it was 2 years ago you got the grant," Courtney said. "These numbers are really important to show the grant has been used effectively."

But when asked by an audience member how the grant program could be improved, Program Director Donie Jarmon had a quick answer: housing

The grant contained no money to pay for housing. Silva said Bethsaida works closely with its partners in the region to find transitional and permanent housing for clients. The Norwich Community Care Team has helped at times with small grants - an average of about $300 - to fill a gap in funding to get a woman into an apartment.

"Our biggest problem is housing," Jarmon said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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