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Volunteers search region for those who are homeless

New London — A group of volunteers walked along Huntington Street in the cold Tuesday night looking into cars with flashlights to see if anyone was sleeping there.

After spotting a car with belongings and bedding in the back seat, they took a moment to peer into the car to see if anyone was there. 

Finding no one, the team of four volunteers, led by David Gonzalez Rice, senior program manager for the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, continued walking and then checked across the street for people in a grassy area by the Interstate-95 entrance.

They were one of the teams canvassing areas for the Point-in-Time Count, the annual census of the state's homeless population organized by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. Volunteers have mobile apps with questionnaires so they can ask people experiencing homelessness questions, such as how long they have been homeless and if this is the first time they have been without a home.

On their next stop at the Ye Antientist Burial Ground, the volunteers split up to walk around with their flashlights in the dark. Volunteer Fenty Lee and Gonzalez Rice checked underneath a tree, where they found clothing items, a trash bag and a fruit punch bottle.

Gonzalez Rice said the items indicated that someone had stayed there at one point but had likely found shelter from the cold weather or had been connected to housing. He said that while the site won't be logged as part of the count, the outreach team in the New London area would have enrolled anybody that lived there in an outreach project and included the person in a list of the homeless. 

"We make a year-round effort to keep track of anybody that's homeless at a given time," he said.

The purpose of Tuesday's count, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is to provide a "snapshot" of who is experiencing homelessness on a single night, including both sheltered and unsheltered people, said Madeline Ravich, development advisor for the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, the organization that coordinates the count. The count is performed across the country at about the same time of year.  

In New London County, about 63 volunteers headed out from headquarters in New London and Norwich to help out with the count across the county, according to United Way of Southeastern Connecticut Community Impact Director Scott Umbel. As volunteers gathered to hear their instructions before the count, New London Mayor Michael Passero stopped by the New London headquarters at the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Bank to give the volunteers a pep talk and stress the importance of the count.

Volunteer Margie Perrone of Waterford was volunteering with her husband, Anthony. Margie said she is involved with helping the homeless and is on the board of directors for Covenant Shelter in New London, but she felt she needed to take a bigger step.

"I really wanted to just get a little deeper and help where I can and let them be counted," she said.

The counts reflected that there were "10 percent fewer people experiencing homelessness in 2019" than in 2018, according to a June 2019 report by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

Data from the 2019 Point-in-Time Count on Jan. 22, 2019, found that 236 people were experiencing homelessness, including 61 children, in the New London and Norwich area, which reflects a 13 percent decline from 2018.

Overall, homelessness in Connecticut is down 32 percent since 2007, according to CCEH's report.

Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness CEO Richard Cho said by phone Tuesday that while homelessness has steadily declined, CCEH hopes to bend the curve further.

The most important lesson learned is that the people who fall into homelessness are not a homogenous population, so an array of different housing services are needed, he said. For example, some people need long-term affordable housing with wraparound supports, while others with a gap between their wages and housing costs need more affordable housing. Some people need shorter-term rental assistance as they work on increasing their wages or employment hours, while others need help with a security deposit, or assistance navigating the housing system. 

In the report, Cho pointed to the success of the "Coordinated Access Network" system that "streamlined access to homeless services and housing assistance" for people facing a housing crisis or homelessness. 

He also said there is "the need to invest the resources needed to scale up the level of response so that the number of people who are homeless on any given night can eventually be counted in only double, if not single, digits."

k.drelich@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Fenty Lee's name in the photo caption.

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