Housing applications act as a barrier for the homeless

New Haven — Applying to college entails a lot of work trying to juggle all of the separate applications for each school and keeping all of the necessary personal documents organized and accessible.

Now imagine applying to several institutions if you have no mailing address, no phone number and no stable home. That’s how Matthew Morgan, executive director of the Hartford-area nonprofit Journey Home, described the plight of a homeless person trying to juggle applications for supportive or affordable housing.

A universal application, he said, would solve that problem.

“For people who are experiencing homelessness, especially for those with mental health disorders or who have problems managing their life, it can be really challenging trying to manage all of these systems,” Morgan said. “Knowing where to go, finding the transportation to get to these places, even having all your documentation with you is difficult for people who are experiencing homelessness.”

Journey Home Inc. was launched in 2007 to help implement the “Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness,” a statewide campaign. Former Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez created the nonprofit in 2004 through the Mayor’s Commission to End Homelessness.

A single, online application that determines who is eligible for which programs, services and housing situations is key to ending homelessness in the state, Morgan said. The data in such an application could be keyed in to one online database, shared by agencies across the state.

“Our intention would be to streamline all of the processes and have a single system for someone to apply and then be able to know immediately whether they’re eligible for all the different housing programs based on their demographics,” Morgan said. That individual would be put on all the different wait lists at once and have their contact information stored in a single place, he said.

The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness (CCEH) hosted a meeting in New Haven Wednesday afternoon to discuss a possible universal application, best practices for implementation and what other agencies now do to streamline their application processes.

In addition to representatives from Journey Home, those from the Capitol Region Mental Health Center, Immaculate Conception Shelter & Housing Corp., Hands on Hartford, My Sister’s Place and others attended the meeting. The state Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services oversees many of the groups; some also receive funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help with rental assistance.

Representatives from New London County, Greater Hartford, Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford are all developing applications specific to their region, but those attending the CCEH meeting stressed that the eventual goal remains a statewide, universal application.

“We need to show the state what works,” said Jim Bombaci, operations manager for Hall-Brooke Behavioral Health Services and Community Residential Services in Bridgeport.

“I know people who have filled out applications that get sent to one or two places when it should really be 10 or 12,” he said. “It’s not because people are not doing their job. It’s because there’s just so much to know.”

Many factors go into determining who’s eligible for which services and housing programs, Bombaci said. Military service, gender, income or lack of income, age, mental health, substance abuse history and medical history represent just a few that complicate the application process.

“If someone fills out one application, it could serve the purpose of filling out 16,” Bombaci said.

A universal application could follow a model that already exists, called the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). HUD-funded programs enter information about their homeless clients into the HMIS, a practice mandated by the U.S. Congress in 2004.

“Eventually we can use this or something like it as a single point of entry,” Bombaci said.

Current application methods are time-consuming. Morgan said Journey Home surveyed 12 case managers in the Hartford area. On average, each spends about an hour and 10 minutes on each application, about 40 minutes determining the programs their clients could be eligible for and often four weeks collecting all of the necessary documentation. Each case manager had about 27 clients, Morgan said.

A single system could also track individuals who change communities and bounce among shelters, Morgan said. Now, if an applicant changes shelters and fails to update the contact information on any of several applications, he or she risks falling to the bottom of the housing waiting list. Contacting the applicant can prove to be impossible and as a result, months or even years of waiting on a list comes to nothing.

The Greater Bridgeport Area Continuum of Care, the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County and the CCEH will host “Project Homeless Connect” Dec. 8 at the United Congregational Church in Bridgeport. Those who are homeless will receive free medical and social services at the event, which will also serve as a small test for the effectiveness of a universal application. Volunteers will register anyone interested in applying for housing using the single, comprehensive application model.