More and more left out in the cold
Homelessness is on the rise in Connecticut, a fact that surely comes as no surprise to those who work with that population, nor to the more casual observers from the public who daily see the obvious signs of this problem in our communities.
The recently released report on the 2023 point-in-time count of those experiencing homelessness conducted in January, shows a nearly 3% percent increase. Numbers rose from 2,930 in the 2022 count to 3,015 in 2023. That increase follows a year when homelessness increased by 13% between 2021 and 2022.
Most of those who work to end homelessness say the point-in-time count vastly underestimates the actual numbers.
Catherine Zall, executive director of New London’s Homeless Hospitality Center, said there often is a waiting list of 15 to 20 people needing emergency shelter, a phenomenon not seen in the past. She also sees a marked increase in the number of shelter residents who need walkers, canes, oxygen tanks and other equipment to assist them in managing a variety of health and mobility issues. This is the physical evidence of what she already knows anecdotally - that many more elderly people are now finding themselves homeless at a time when it’s also not unusual for there to be a three-year wait for subsidized housing for seniors.
A main driver in this increase is simple supply and demand. There’s much more demand for affordable housing than there is supply. In a booming real estate market, more property owners are selling, which in turn forces many renters, some who have lived in their apartments for decades, out of their homes. Property owners who see market-rate rents are higher than what they have been charging are renovating and increasing rental costs. New development is focused on those who are wealthier. Some properties are being converted from long-term rentals to short-term vacation rentals.
None of this is good news; not for those struggling to find affordable and adequate housing, not for business owners who more frequently encounter homeless individuals sleeping at their properties and not for local officials working to rejuvenate New London’s business district and attract more tourists and other visitors downtown.
Those in suburban communities in the region and throughout Connecticut seem content to view homelessness as someone’s else’s problem and fight attempts to develop more affordable housing in their towns. This leaves the hard work of fighting to end homelessness to those in urban centers such as New London, where the bulk of social, mental health and addiction services and more affordable housing units are located.
Given that our current attitudes about affordable housing and homelessness are not building a strong foundation to move to solutions, we believe there is much work to be done if there is to be any hope of change. First, there should be a major re-education campaign about who the homeless are. It’s much more difficult for the public to turn a blind eye to the problem when they realize many of those experiencing homelessness are not dealing drugs or suffering from alcoholism, but instead could be our grandparents, our parents, our children and our neighbors simply caught in the dizzying spiral of increasing housing costs.
Our lawmakers and state and local officials also must step in and provide both the legal and attitudinal framework to allow for more flexibility in housing options in the region and state. Clustered housing, smaller housing units and supportive living options such as single-room occupancies with on-site services all could play a role in getting people off the streets.
Shared housing that matches those in need of housing with those who have spare rooms, extra spaces or empty in-law suites also can provide a solution for some. This option has become quite popular In many high-priced housing markets. Locally, the practice is more informal, but could go a long way to helping cash-strapped homeowners and elderly tenants who find themselves suddenly out of housing, as well as those who struggle with loneliness and isolation.
Previous laws and programs aimed at getting Connecticut residents to accept housing options beyond the large-lot, large single-family house model so common across the state have gotten lukewarm public receptions at best. Sticking to our “land of steady ways,” however, will serve neither the individual nor the public good. There is an urgent need for residents and officials to get serious about working to expand housing options for the least fortunate among us.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, retired executive editor Tim Cotter and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.
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