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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Bill proposes tiny homes for state’s homeless; Norwich lawmaker opposes idea, calls it ‘dangerous’

    Nearly 1,000 Connecticut residents, including toddlers and the elderly, have spent the winter living in cars and tents without access to shelter. In response to the growing crisis, lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow religious organizations to temporarily house individuals experiencing homelessness in non-permanent tiny homes installed on their property.

    Advocates say House Bill 5174 would provide much-needed shelter beds and expand homeless services in small towns by allowing religious organizations to bypass zoning regulations that have historically prevented houses of worship from offering shelter.

    Opponents argue that the proposal fails to address key concerns and gives too much power to religious entities while sidestepping community input.

    In Connecticut, the number of people experiencing homelessness has reached historic levels.

    According to the most recent data from the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, 940 people in the state are living outside, without shelter. Approximately 4,954 people are connected with a homeless program — a number that does not include individuals and families who are “doubled up” or “couch surfing.”

    “There’s an opportunity for us to address this challenge by multipronged approaches,” Sen. Saud Anwar, a sponsor of the bill, said.

    Anwar said that while many towns have failed to address homelessness within their communities, religious congregations have recognized their role in mitigating the crisis.

    “Being a student of all different faith communities, they speak about this as a priority in every one of the pulpits,” Anwar said. “This would be their opportunity to be able to put their beliefs into action.”

    “We have to look at how we can bring the people back into society,” Anwar added. “We have to make sure that we create policies to help people achieve that rather than have policies where the larger community can hide behind to refuse treatment for people who really need help.”

    The bill, raised by the Planning and Development Committee, would grant religious organizations the right to install temporary shelter units on their property.

    Under the proposal, religious organizations must submit an as-of-right permit application to their town’s zoning commission. All shelters must adhere to building and fire codes.

    The language of the bill allows municipalities to impose a handful of specified regulations. For example, towns may opt to “prohibit the installation of more than eight temporary shelter units on any single lot,” limit units to a maximum of 400 square feet, restrict occupancy to one family or two unrelated individuals, and cap shelter stays at 12 months per occupant.

    Towns may also impose requirements for heating and cooling, electricity, exterior lighting, toilets and showers, and personal storage at installation sites.

    Additionally, the bill allows towns to “Prohibit the installation of any temporary shelter unit within 1,000 feet of any public or private elementary or secondary school” and “Require that any temporary shelter unit be set back not less than 10 feet from any adjacent real property not owned by the religious organization.”

    Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, a chairwoman of the committee, said she hopes the initiative will create more shelter space in rural municipalities and small towns — something that would reduce the burden on urban shelters and allow individuals and families who fall into homelessness to stay connected with their communities and local support networks while they get back on their feet.

    “When we are trying to concentrate all the services in our cities, it doesn’t really reflect the needs of the people,” Kavros DeGraw said.

    Kavros DeGraw said Connecticut’s “religious organizations are already doing a great job” serving people experiencing homelessness and other poverty-related situations.

    “(This) is one more way that they can extend what they consider to be their good works,” Kavros DeGraw said.

    Rep. Doug Dubitsky, a member of the committee said he opposes the proposal, which he referred to as a “fairly dangerous bill.”

    Dubitsky, whose district covers parts of Norwich and Lisbon, said the bill would allow religious leaders to circumvent local regulations and install shelters with little to no community input. Dubitsky said such initiatives could result in “chaos” for small towns with limited resources.

    “Let’s say you have a church property that owns three or four adjoining parcels and they put eight housing structures on each one. … Perhaps that town has no sewers, no water service, no transportation. Where are these homeless people going to go? What are they going to do all day?” Dubitsky said. “They’re going to stay right there. … There will be dozens and dozens of homeless people, in the middle of perhaps a historic district in a little town with no services.”

    Dubitsky described the proposal as “short-sighted” adding that “the ramifications have not been thought through.”

    Dubitsky expressed concerns that the bill does not specify what materials shelters can and cannot be made out of. He said the bill, as written, would green-light any prefabricated structure, including shelters made out of shipping containers.

    The defines a “Temporary shelter unit” as “a nonpermanent commercially prefabricated accessory structure that is designed to be easily dismantled or removed, but does not include tarps, tents, other nonrigid materials or motor vehicles.”

    Dubitsky added that shower and toilet requirements in the bill could result in the installation of outdoor portable toilets, which residents may be opposed to.

    Dubitsky said the bill’s language does not go far enough to define who could occupy the shelters.

    “Are we building housing for the 10 million people who have illegally crossed the southern border? Or are we building housing for people who are just out of a job?” Dubitsky asked. “None of this is addressed.”

    Dubitsky said that by authorizing shelters on any religious property, structures could go up in historic districts, next to playgrounds, or near liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries.

    “Homeless shelters are not appropriate in every location, and it is important that the people’s elected representatives, including the town officials and zoning commissions, have some say in where a homeless shelter is going to be located,” Dubitsky said. “To have this sweeping bill that makes it, as of right, that you can put (shelters) anywhere you want is not, in my view, the appropriate way to ensure the health and safety of the homeless population or the people of the 169 towns in the state.”

    In 2020, the Association of Religion Data Archives counted 2,889 houses of worship and religious organizations in Connecticut as of 2020. If every congregation installed eight shelters, the threshold at which towns may begin to prohibit the installation of additional structures, Connecticut could add upwards of 23,000 units of temporary housing.

    Sarah Fox, the chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness said it is important to remember that the bill is not a mandate.

    “It’s not saying that you must and it’s not saying that every single community across the state has to make this decision,” Fox said. “It just allows churches to be part of this process and this conversation and make decisions to serve people.”

    Fox said the current crisis requires “different innovative solutions” to providing shelter that expand “the current capacity in every community across the state.”

    Fox said the coalition supports the initiative, but they are also advocating for changes to the bill language that would require participating religious organizations to work with the state’s Coordinated Access Network to connect those in need with services.

    Additionally, Fox said provisions of the bill should apply to existing church facilities, like rectories and accessory buildings, that could serve as warming shelters. Fox said that zoning restrictions have blocked churches from opening up their space for this purpose.

    “When I’m talking about this proposal, I’m thinking about a tool in our toolbox,” Fox said. “We have to rethink resources. This just is a tool and a means to an end to keep people safe when severe weather arises, which we do not have in our toolbox today.”

    Fox said that this year, frontline workers in the fight against homelessness saw demographics shift dramatically, revealing an unprecedented number of individuals over the age of 55 and moms with toddlers and young children.

    “The fact that leading into winter, we had moms with toddlers sleeping in tents is not something that should be passed by quickly. That really speaks to the state of the challenge that we’re facing,” Fox said. “It’s very much a different world than what we knew in regards to the people becoming homeless at this point in time.”

    Fox said that as people come to recognize homelessness as a regional issue, and not just an urban one, she is hopeful that more towns have come to understand their role in addressing homelessness at the local level.

    “​​I think so often when people think about homelessness, they very much are just thinking about the people who are stereotypically homeless, people who are long-term homeless with substance abuse and mental health challenges,” Fox said. “It’s easy to not recognize the fact that anyone can become homeless and that people, our neighbors, are falling into homelessness every day.”

    Sen. Ryan Fazio, a ranking member of the committee, said the tiny homes proposal “is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution” to the varying needs and challenges of the state’s diverse homeless population.

    “My concern about the bill in question is that by having an extraordinarily liberal policy towards setting up temporary, outdoor makeshift homeless shelters, as of right, (is) that we aren’t balancing those considerations and we might not actually be helping all the people we’re trying to help,” Fazio said.

    “You need to be able to precisely target and alleviate the different challenges that various homeless populations are facing, whether it’s economic purely or related to psychiatric problems or related to chronic substance abuse problems,” Fazio added.

    Fazio echoed concerns that the current proposal does not offer enough restrictions in terms of occupancy and geographical placement.

    “We could be putting people with severe mental health or substance abuse problems in a dwelling next to a single mom with two kids who isn’t in the same situation. We could be putting people within 10-foot proximity of residential neighborhoods, backyards where kids are out and about playing, without any sort of community buy-in and regulation,” Fazio said.

    While Fazio said the bill could be improved with tightened regulations, he said it would be better to leave decisions up to “communities and religious houses of worship to collaborate and come to agreements on their own.”

    Overall, Fazio emphasized the need for balance.

    “I think we all have the same goal here,” Fazio said. “I don’t think we want policies that bring us in such a liberal direction. … But I think we can find a kind of middle ground here that both improves the well-being of our homeless population in Connecticut, which is sadly increasing, and also protects the health and safety of every community.”

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