CT advocates seek more funding for homeless services

Due to a lack of funding, local agencies focusing on homelessness, such as Beth-El Center, are struggling to meet the needs of one of the community's most vulnerable populations.

Beth-El Executive Director Jennifer Paradis said 11 percent of 60,277 requests statewide for shelter were unmet over the last year, according to 211 data. She said 10 percent of 617 requests in Milford, where the organization is based, over that same time period were unmet.

To better serve these vulnerable residents, Paradis said Beth-El and other agencies in the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness are pushing for legislators to approve $50 million over two years to rescue the homeless response system.

"The homeless response system counts everything under the 211 experience, which is the first point of contact for all individuals experiencing homelessness," added Paradis. "At best, only 50 percent of the homeless response system is funded simultaneously, making other areas severely underfunded."

Steve Werlin, executive director of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, Inc. in New Haven, through a statement, said the business has the benefit of 40 years worth of programming and best-practice development to help end chronic, widespread and recurring homelessness in Connecticut.

"Yet it all hangs by a thread," he added. "If we don't commit the resources, we cannot expect our well-designed system to function as intended. It's like buying a fancy new car and then refusing to fill the gas tank."

Helen McAlinden, president and CEO of Homes With Hope, said Fairfield County residents call Homes with Hope, Westport Housing Authority or Westport Social services looking for help to stay in Westport.

"Connecticut can make homelessness a rare, brief, and one-time experience by investing in what works: housing, supportive services, and the people and infrastructure that support our most vulnerable residents," she said.

"We have individuals and families living in homeless shelters with and without housing subsidies. Even those with subsidies cannot get housing due to the shortage of affordable and supportive housing," McAlinden added. "Those without subsidies can’t afford to get out of the shelter. In Connecticut, a family with three minimum wage jobs still can’t afford to have a roof over their heads. This is not right in a wealthy state like Connecticut."

The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness is asking for $5 million to annualize the cold weather emergency response program.

Werlin stated DESK is one of five programs operating alongside traditional shelters in New Haven and Hamden. Their site alone has saved more than 400 unique individuals' lives since Nov. 28.

"The $5 million of cold weather funding is a very modest amount to save literally thousands of lives next winter," he stated. "Additionally, this funding will help avoid millions of dollars more in emergency medical and deferred healthcare costs incurred by the most vulnerable residents of our state and paid by the general public."

She added that two areas of concern are funds to pay staff and coordinated networks.

"The homeless response system funds less than 50 percent of the work we do in the emergency shelter at Beth-El," said Paradis. "During COVID, we were more of an extension of the public health system, but today we have to have bake sales or events to close the gap."

Many people think nonprofits are doing bake sales to raise money for ancillary things like scholarships, added Paradis, but in reality, they are doing those to pay their staff a minimum wage.

"That is the threshold that we are at," she said. "With the contracts not being increased in 10 to 12 years, that has caused a high turnover rate because our staff and other agencies move on to better-paying jobs."

Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness is calling for the state legislature to invest $37 million to address chronic underfunding of homeless response nonprofits and ensure adequate wages, focusing on transforming jobs in the sector into careers of choice for front-line homeless response workers who are critical to ending homelessness.

"We have staff whose job is to distribute resources which they also are the recipients of," said Paradis. "They live in poverty themselves, and we do lose quality and experienced staff because of the underfunded jobs. So we are in a position where the full-time staff still live in poverty margins."

The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness is asking for $5.95 million for the coordinated access network infrastructure to close the gap further.

"It's important for us to coordinate, so we refer them or direct them to an available bed," said Paradis. "It comes down to increasing the quality of service and effectiveness for our most vulnerable population."

McAlinden said Homes With Hope is part of the Coordinated Access Network, which means all vacancies at their emergency homeless shelters and family housing vacancies go through 211.

"Critical investments in Connecticut's homeless response system will strengthen our homeless response system, ensuring that we meet our goal of collectively ending homelessness in Connecticut," she stated.

Locally, Beth-El is doing its best to educate people because Paradis said there is an assumption that these issues are taken care of at the federal and state level.

"We've had a conversation with local offices that said there's money, but less than 1 percent of ARPA funds went to housing," she said. 

"Having the homelessness response system be underfunded stresses local relationships," added Paradis. "We have to be crystal clear with what we are experiencing as a system because, as an agency, it's our job to express the frustrations and needs of the people we serve."

The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness is also asking fora $2 million investment in a flexible funding subsidy pool to help subsidize housing and provide flexible assistance to help individuals, families, and youth to overcome financial barriers and expedite solutions for those experiencing homelessness.