NL homeless center eyes regional approach

Norwich - The New London Homeless Hospitality Center presented a snapshot last week of recent efforts to build a regional network to prevent homelessness.

"We're really trying to move in this region from being a collection of independent providers to being a system of providers that work together to address homelessness," Executive Director Cathy Zall told the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments on Wednesday.

In her presentation, Zall focused on the region's recent response to single adults facing homelessness. A coordinated initiative - similar to an existing intake network for families - began Nov. 1 to make it easier for single adults to seek help, she said.

Under the system, the New London Homeless Hospitality Center and Norwich Human Services serve as two "access points" with staff from several agencies and centers in the region who can connect people to shelters or alternative housing, Zall said. The individuals can find shelter at the New London center or the Covenant Shelter, or obtain a referral to Safe Futures in the case of domestic violence.

Rather than hand a person a list of phone numbers to try, the new program offers a place to find in-person guidance. "It's really a major improvement," Zall said in an interview.

In the three-month period between November 2013 and January 2014, 275 single adults in the region sought shelter through the system, with 98 arriving at the Norwich Human Services and 177 at the New London center.

Homelessness continues to be a "very diverse picture," Zall told the council. About 40 percent of those individuals had never been homeless before. Ten percent were veterans. People under the age of 22 or over the age of 65 comprised 10 percent of that population. Each week, Zall said, a number of the people seeking shelter arrive after having served time in prison. All of the adults are very poor and facing a crisis, she said.

"As you know, there is no welfare for single employable adults in Connecticut," said Zall. Welfare reforms, she said in the interview, have over the years tightened eligibility requirements. As it stands now, single adults are only eligible for the assistance if they are disabled and can prove they're unable to work, she said.

Overall, 202 of the 275 people the system saw, or about 15 to 20 people per week, were admitted to a shelter. The system helped 73 people, or 27 percent, find alternatives to shelters, such as locating a boardinghouse, reuniting with family or preventing eviction, Zall said.

Rapid rehousing, particularly for veterans or the employed, is a priority for combating homelessness, she said. The New London County Fund to End Homelessness, aided by the state and administered by United Way, funds rapid rehousing, which covers an individual's first month's rent and security deposit.

Quickly finding people homes frees up shelter beds and allows staff to assist people with the greatest needs. Plus, the longer people stay homeless, the longer they could remain in a "downward spiral," Zall told the council. Nineteen of the 162 people who left the New London center from November through January received rapid rehousing assistance through the fund.

A coordinated approach

A recent requirement from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ties funding to "coordinated access," such as the system now in place in southeastern Connecticut, Zall said. The region had long wanted to move in a collaborative direction, and the federal mandate helped spur the process and the Nov. 1 initiative, she added.

Six years ago, the regional Council of Governments unanimously voted to ask its member towns and cities to contribute to the shelter run by the New London Homeless Hospitality Center. The center continues to send funding requests to towns in the region, but they are not required to contribute.

COG members talked Wednesday about the need to change the perception of the homeless hospitality center as a New London facility and get more residents and communities to start thinking of it as a regional facility that addresses a regional need.

Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon broached the idea of establishing a regional fund of sorts to help with homelessness in the region. Municipalities could contribute to the fund with the understanding that the fund helps support a regional need.

Municipalities often face budgetary constraints that make it difficult to consistently make voluntary contributions. Congdon said there can be pushback from residents who ask why their town should support a homeless center located in New London. Some may say it's not the role of government to support charity, and others may ask why they should support that center over another one, he said.

Groton Town Manager Mark Oefinger said the center is already "truly a regional center," even though it may bear the name of New London rather than that of southeastern Connecticut. Ultimately, it's less expensive to contribute to the center than for towns to build their own shelters, he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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