Count sheds light on homelessness

From left, homeless veteran Nicholas C. answers survey questions from volunteer Shirley Smith and Tammy Alger, a rapid rehousing case manager at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, during the annual homeless count on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, at an encampment at Bates Woods in Waterford. United Way of Southeastern Connecticut coordinated the unsheltered count that is part of a national program to learn more about homelessness in communities. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
From left, homeless veteran Nicholas C. answers survey questions from volunteer Shirley Smith and Tammy Alger, a rapid rehousing case manager at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, during the annual homeless count on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, at an encampment at Bates Woods in Waterford. United Way of Southeastern Connecticut coordinated the unsheltered count that is part of a national program to learn more about homelessness in communities. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Waterford — Aided by flashlights, a team of volunteers and social service workers walked through Bates Woods on Tuesday evening, searching for people living there. 

The team, led by Tambria Moore, outreach coordinator for the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, found an outdoor encampment where a 53-year-old homeless man was sleeping.

After the team called for him, the man came to meet the volunteers and workers, who then ran through a questionnaire on a mobile app to learn more about him and his circumstances.

The man, Nicholas C., a U.S. Air Force veteran, said he has been homeless for the past three years, as a pinched nerve due to a work injury hinders his ability to walk and prevents him from working.

After giving Nicholas a gift card for a grocery store and thanking him, the team walked further into the woods and found a tent site, where no one currently was living. The team then drove to a field in town, where they didn't find anyone but documented an encampment.

The team's work was all part of an effort Tuesday to take a snapshot of homelessness in Connecticut and offer services to those who need them. About 55 community volunteers went out in teams and searched from 7 to 11 p.m. in the woods, in parking lots and in and behind abandoned buildings across the region to assist in the count of homeless people, both in shelter and unsheltered, one night of the year.

The "point-in-time" homelessness count, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is done across the country in January. In Connecticut, the count was held statewide on Tuesday.

The volunteers offered supplies, support and services, if needed, to the people they found, said Anne Stockton, community impact director for United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, which organized the count. The volunteers also tried to collect information — including who is outside, why they are there, and what their circumstances are — to help paint a picture of what homelessness looks like in the state.

At the same time that volunteers were looking outside, service providers and agencies were counting the number of people who have been sheltered, including those in shelters and transitional living, she said.

New London Homeless Hospitality Center Executive Director Cathy Zall  said the count is one — but not the only — measure of the ways the state and region are tracking progress toward the goal of ending homelessness. She said there has been substantial progress, including in getting people back into housing faster. But she said work remains. 

Unfortunately, many people who live on the edge financially may find themselves facing homelessness after they get sick, or their car breaks down, or they lose their job or their hours at work are cut back.

The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness will generate a report based on the data collected during Tuesday's count. Based on the 2017 count, CCEH found that homelessness in Connecticut had fallen 24 percent over the past decade, according to the agency's website, bit.ly/2017CCEHreport.

Stockton said 2017 was the third year in which the state had declining numbers on the night of the count. In New London County in 2017, the count found 227 homeless people, with 19 of those people unsheltered, down from 288 people in 2016. However, the 2016 levels were higher than the 270 people counted in 2015.

After checking the sites in Waterford on Tuesday, the team then continued in New London, as other teams checked sites in the region.

Before the teams set off on their task on Tuesday, Mayor Michael Passero told the groups gathered at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center that he appreciates their efforts. Another set of volunteers gathered at the Southeastern Mental Health Authority in Norwich before starting their work.

Tammy Alger, rapid rehousing case manager for the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, said she is inspired to help because she hopes "one day we can end homelessness."

Social service agencies are working to find housing for Nicholas, the homeless veteran, and are in the process of getting a housing voucher, Moore said. She said he was discharged two days short of qualifying for Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing benefits, so the agencies are trying to appeal that.

Nicholas said that homelessness is a terrible condition that happens as a result of poor choices or poor conditions that fall on someone.

"At first I was ashamed, but it's really nothing to be ashamed about," he said.

Volunteer Shirley Smith said she was moved to tears by meeting him.  

"I've been homeless, so I understand how he feels," said Smith, who works for the New London Housing Authority. She said she volunteers, donates and participates in walks for the homeless to do whatever she can to give back. She said she agreed with what Nicholas said about not feeling ashamed, and she encourages people to ask for help.

"Nobody should be ashamed to ask for help — but you have to ask for help to receive it," she said.

Moore said that she encourages people if they see something to say something. She said people can call 2-1-1 for help, including with housing placement, or reach out to shelters or police departments, or call the hotline for the Mobile Outreach Team, run through the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, at (860) 886-9302.

k.drelich@theday.com

Tammy Alger, left, a rapid rehousing case manager at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, and Tambria Moore, outreach coordinator at the center, walk through a tent during the annual homeless count on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in a homeless encampment at Bates Woods in Waterford. United Way of Southeastern Connecticut coordinated the unsheltered count that is part of a national program to learn more about homelessness in communities through surveys. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Tammy Alger, left, a rapid rehousing case manager at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, and Tambria Moore, outreach coordinator at the center, walk through a tent during the annual homeless count on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in a homeless encampment at Bates Woods in Waterford. United Way of Southeastern Connecticut coordinated the unsheltered count that is part of a national program to learn more about homelessness in communities through surveys. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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