'Rapid rehousing' program for region's homeless aims to shorten shelter stays

Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, holds an informal meeting with clients Monday in New London regarding upcoming policy changes.
Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, holds an informal meeting with clients Monday in New London regarding upcoming policy changes. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

The picture of homelessness in New London County, with daytime respite centers, overnight shelters for families and individuals and cold weather hospitality centers in winter will change dramatically starting July 1 as the region's homeless services shift to a goal of "rapid rehousing."

New London County actually is ahead of new goals set out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that call for limiting the stay in a homeless shelter to no more than 30 days and reducing the number of people entering the shelter for the first time.

Faced with both the new HUD goals and a pending relocation to a new shelter limited to 25 overnight beds, the New London Hospitality Center distributed letters to about 70 people who stayed at the St. James homeless shelter Sunday night outlining the new policy.

"You should begin working on finding housing right away," wrote Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, wrote in the letter.

Zall offered assistance to help shelter residents write their plans and carry them out. Each letter assigned a resident to a service coordinator and urged them to work closely with the hospitality center's Help Center to work on their housing plans, finding employment or applying for federal Social Security or other benefits.

But the letter repeatedly emphasized: "All of this will be up to YOU. We are not going to dog you about this. We are not going to chase you around and nag you about it. We will do everything in our power to help you, but you need to take the lead."

In Norwich, the Community Care Team that runs the annual winter overnight shelter for about a dozen Norwich homeless residents per night already has closed its doors. The team, comprised of numerous human services agencies, received approval last week from Norwich City Council to convert its $30,000 annual federal community development block grant into a rapid rehousing plan rather than shelter operation.

Many homeless people in the region have some income, such as Social Security or current jobs. Sometimes, it's not enough to afford an apartment, especially with a security deposit. Or they find other ways to spend that money, said New London Homeless Hospitality Center Deputy Director Greg Graves, who plans to set aside Tuesday afternoons to work with residents on their housing plans.

"I have people coming in, and I say 'you have one day to be down on yourself, and then you have to start picking yourself up,'" Graves said.

Initial reaction to the letter on Monday was mixed.

Zall met with 17 people at the shelter Monday evening to explain the plan and hear their concerns. Participants described several personal circumstances -difficulty finding jobs, medical setbacks, worries that summer jobs are only temporary.

Zall said the hospitality center is trying to obtain funding to provide help ranging from bus fare to job interviews or a Social Security hearing to "top off" someone's monthly rent.

On Monday afternoon, several people outside the daytime drop-in center at 19 Jay St. expressed skepticism that the hospitality center would provide the promised help. Richard Ortiz said he has an apartment, but the $700 per month rent in New London for a small apartment is exorbitant.

Eleanor Rathbun, who will turn 60 soon, said she has several medical issues and recently suffered a nervous breakdown. She is applying for Social Security disability and would like to find a place to stay while waiting for her application to be processed. She said bouncing from shelter to shelter is very stressful on people.

Waving her arm in a sweeping motion to indicate the urban neighborhood that surrounds the drop-in center, she said the city has plenty of derelict houses that could be fixed up for low-income housing.

"That would be providing jobs and places for people to stay," she said. "We need our voices to be heard."

Iris Garcia said she has been homeless for about a year, and this is her first time being homeless. She has income, she said, but not enough for an apartment. She sees the problem getting worse.

"I have lived in New London for 15 years, and I've never seen this many people in the streets, she said.

Homeless advocates and service providers all agreed that finding housing - whether it be supportive housing, shared apartments, transitional housing or even substance abuse treatment centers - is better than a lingering shelter stay for the region's homeless population.

Less expensive

Also, Lee Ann Gomes, Norwich Human Services social work supervisor and a member of the Norwich Community Care Team said, rapid rehousing is much less expensive than running a shelter.

She presented a budget of $50,000 using the CDBG funds and other small grants that divided funds into several categories. The Community Care Team might provide small rental subsidies to people at risk of becoming homeless to keep them in their current housing. Or the fund could help pay a security deposit or first month rent to a working homeless person needing an apartment.

She estimated the cost per person per year to house someone in a shelter is $990, while the rapid rehousing cost would be $363 on average, with some needing very little assistance and others needing more funding.

Gomes said in one recent case, a person had family in Massachusetts willing to provide housing and needed only the bus fare to get there. Another family was staying at a relative's house but literally had no beds to sleep on. The fund could pay for beds to keep the family intact. Providing security deposits and one-time rental subsidies would be more expensive.

Whatever the case, Gomes promised that Norwich homeless people would not simply be sent to other shelters in the region this winter. If a Norwich person must enter a shelter as a last resort, Norwich would send a caseworker to the shelter to work with the person to find alternative housing as quickly as possible.

Norwich caseworkers as of last week were working with three Norwich homeless people at the New London shelter. In addition, Reliance House, a private agency that works with people with mental illness, is working with about 10 residents in the New London shelter. Phil Brose, homeless outreach program director at Reliance House, said a Reliance House caseworker visits the New London shelter once a week to identify residents who would qualify for the agency's services.

Homeless women will be referred to Bethsaida Community, Inc.'s federally funded Homeless Women Deserve Treatment program.

'Regional thinking'

"The direction everyone is going is regional thinking," Zall said. "There still is this fear in New London that New London is bearing a disproportionate share of the burden. But with limited money and the continuing need, we need to think regionally. We are definitely working together."

New London County got a head start on rapid rehousing this fiscal year through a $250,000 grant from the state to launch the New London County Fund to End Homelessness, administered by the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut.

Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of the Mystic Area Shelter and Hospitality Inc. and coordinator of the family services portion of the New London County fund, said the group argued successfully before the legislature this spring for renewed funding of up to $250,000 per year for two years in the new biennial state budget.

According to statistics provided to the legislature, 65 individuals in the region were rehoused in less than six months, and the average nightly shelter census dropped from almost 65 in 2011 to about 45 in 2012.

The percentage of long-term stays also dropped, with about 62 percent of shelter residents staying for 30 or fewer days and 20 percent staying for more than 60 days, a drop of about 10 percent.

Tepper Bates said studies have shown that the cost and potential long-term mental effects of homelessness on families with children can be devastating. With the economy still struggling in the region, the number of families needing shelter stays jumped from 149 to 207 from 2011 to 2012. The New London County Fund to End Homelessness successfully diverted 50 families in less than six months, the report said, and the length of stay in family shelters dropped by 15 percent.

"Most importantly, a shelter is still homelessness," Tepper Bates said. "A shelter is a stressful time for adulthood, and doubly or more so for children. The faster we can help a family stay housed, the better we are as a community. The more families we can return to housing, the more we have done for those children. It's profoundly important. There are very serious and potentially lifelong issues."

c.bessette@theday.com

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