Norwich — Cookies shouldn’t make you cry. But when Debbie dropped a raw egg on the kitchen floor, it was just too much.
“I lost it,” she said, laughing at the memory a few days later, sitting on a plush couch in the living room of her new home. “But the girls helped me, and I pushed through it and made them. Everyone said they were good, but I think they were just being nice.”
Baking within 24 hours is just part of the deal at Bethsaida Community’s Katie Blair House in Norwich, a transitional housing program for homeless women. The philosophy? Every woman should feel at home right away. It’s Debbie’s kitchen now, so she should learn how to use it.
With an estimated 4,500 homeless people in Connecticut on any given night — and more than 636,000 million nationwide — advocates have struggled for decades to find the best way to help this population. The root causes of homeless are many, and the basic and ubiquitous short-term solution has always been the emergency shelter.
But the subject of fierce debate in Connecticut and across the country now is: What comes after the shelter?
This has put transitional housing programs like the Katie Blair House at the center of a fundamental dispute over how best to end homelessness. More and more, service providers and advocacy coalitions argue that Debbie should be set up in permanent housing — with a social service network available. This would be preferable, they say, than her starting out in a transitional program like Katie Blair, where she could stay for up to two years before moving on.
But Debbie and her roommates say they love the transitional program.
“It’s a godsend,” said Debbie, 44, who lost her home and job a year ago when her drinking got out of hand. “I wouldn’t have anywhere else to go. And this place, I believe, is going to give me the tools to become independent and get my own place.”
Carol Walter, executive director of the Hartford-based Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness (CCEH), said the effectiveness of some transitional housing programs needs to be re-evaluated. But some, she said, are still important.
“I think that we really need to look at how we’re spending our money and what the outcomes are,” she said in a recent interview.
“I think the snap answer that people give is transitional (housing is) bad; (permanent) housing: good. The complexity that people miss is that there’s many different types of transitional housing, and they evolve for many different reasons.”
But others say there shouldn’t even be an argument.
“Transitional housing is a four-letter word at the federal level,” said Neal Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It doesn’t work. It’s not necessary.”
A national shift
Nearly 25 years ago, the federal government began financing programs for homeless people through McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants. The legislation was named, in part, for its main Republican sponsor, former U.S. Rep. Stewart B. McKinney, who represented Fairfield County and who had passed away that year.
The assistance grants were funded at $1.901 billion in 2011 — the same amount earmarked in 2010.
“That’s with rising fair market rents and larger numbers of homeless people,” said Walter, of the Connecticut Coalition. “It’s an effective cut.”
But Walter and homeless care providers will have to make do. They’ll also need to meet a new set of regulations that went into effect Dec. 15 with the implementation of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act, or HEARTH.
HEARTH particularly targets homeless families with children. It also directs money at initiatives and programs that funnel homeless people from emergency shelters directly into permanent housing, an approach known as “housing first.”
Federal funding also illustrates the shift to more permanent housing solutions. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently awarded Connecticut a $31 million grant to renew various housing projects. About 11 percent of that money went to transitional programs. HUD also issues yearly grant money for new housing projects. Almost no new funds go to transitional housing anymore, Walter said.
Getting people “ready” for housing
For years, there has been almost a formula for helping the homeless: they would move from emergency shelters to transitional housing, and then ideally — eventually — to permanent housing. This was called the “continuum of care.”
The last few years have seen a shift away from the continuum of care, a change accelerated by the federal government’s pouring funds specifically into permanent housing programs.
Why did the tide turn against transitional housing programs?
Some think such programs simply create a temporary solution before funneling families back onto the street.
Carmen Colon is executive director of Alpha Community Services YMCA, one of the largest social services providers for homeless families in Fairfield County. She hopes to turn one of their transitional housing units into permanent supportive housing, she said, because she’s sick of telling families that their time is up.
“I’ve been with this agency for 18 years,” she said. “And we really have our hands tied when we say ‘what are we going to do with this family now? Where are we going to send them?’”
Neil Donovan, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, takes it a step further.
“Basically, it (transitional housing) started as an institutionalization of the waiting process for permanent housing,” he said. “But nobody needs two years to get normal. Transitional housing proponents are basically just people who have drunk their own Kool-Aid.”
Some transitional housing providers are willing to push back, however.
“I understand the trajectory, but there’s a policy side, and then there’s a practical side,” said the Rev. Bonita Grubbs, executive director of Christian Community Action (CCA) in New Haven. CCA offers emergency shelter services and runs a transitional housing program called Stepping Stone.
“What I’ve seen over time is that some people just aren’t there. Permanent housing doesn’t work for everyone. An individual in crisis takes a good while to get back on their feet — and often people will fall back on hard times if not supported in the right way,” she said.
Grubbs said that at least 10 percent of the people CCA reaches are candidates for programs like Stepping Stone.
Transitional housing programs, proponents say, offer a more structured support system and environment, and come with certain requirements. At the Katie Blair House, for example, Debbie is required to attend four Alcoholics Anonymous meetings per week. And each roommate is responsible for household chores.
“There’s value in coaching, coaxing, comforting and challenging individuals so that they can grow in stability and in income,” Grubbs said.
And, some say, it’s more difficult to provide that support, therapy or guidance once people are on their own.
“You’ve got to create a pathway for people,” Grubbs said. “You don’t end a thing by just changing the rules.”
The Money Challenge
But even proponents of permanent supportive housing worry about putting the horse before the cart.
“The real challenge is that we’re just not going to be able to create enough housing to solve the problem,” said Donovan of the National Coalition.
Permanent housing is expensive, and the money just isn’t there.
“You’re talking about money on par with what we’ve spent annually fighting a war,” Donovan said, estimating the cost to put homeless people in permanent housing nationally at $11 billion.
“The country just does not have the appetite to spend that money on housing.”
But his coalition won’t give up on pushing for permanent supportive housing: advocating for more funding and quick building. Because though there’s not enough housing yet, permanent is still what works best, he said.
Reorganize, regionalize, prioritize
As the approach to housing shifts, service providers are seeking ways to make the system more accessible and efficient.
A universal application for supportive housing is in the works, and being tested in some parts of Connecticut, for example. Now, a homeless person fills out multiple applications for different programs. Those applications don’t always ask for contact information, so getting in touch with the applicant can prove impossible. And juggling all that paperwork further burdens the process.
The unfortunate result: missed opportunities to get off a wait list, and into housing.
A “universal” application could offer one point of entry to multiple wait lists in any given region, said Lisa Bahadosingh, a team leader for Supportive Housing WORKS — a regional collaboration of service providers in southeastern Connecticut. The application should increase access to all housing programs and support services.
Regional collaboration helps organizations track their homeless applicants, but it takes time and effort.
“Getting everyone to agree on one consensual approach can be difficult, so we try to establish a happy medium,” said David Rich, executive director of Supportive Housing WORKS.
In New London County, four family shelters joined forces to replace a patchwork system. Before, a family might call multiple shelters, bouncing from agency to agency with no assurance of immediate help, said Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of Mystic Area Shelter and Hospitality (MASH).
Now, all calls are referred to one case manager. That case manager can place the family into an opening at any one of the four shelters in New London County.
“When someone needs an ambulance they call one phone number and help arrives,” said Walter at CCEH. “We should approach housing crisis with the same mindset.”
Back at Bethsaida’s Katie Blair House, Rebecca and Laura say they’re ready to move on, but aren’t ready to live on their own just yet. The pair became fast friends through the transitional program. Now, they’ll move into a two-bedroom apartment — together.
Alongside the Katie Blair House, Bethsaida offers six units of permanent supportive housing: the Flora O’Neil apartments. Rebecca and Laura move in this month. They look forward to having their own rooms, they said, but they’ll still rely on each other. Each struggles with a tough past: there’s talk of domestic abuse, alcohol addiction, trauma. They say Bethsaida has strengthened them: they wouldn’t have made it without that support and transition.
Outside of Bethsaida, practitioners argue that the two women could have gotten that support while in permanent housing.
“But what works for one woman, may not work for another,” said Claire Silva, Bethsaida’s executive director.
It’s important to recognize all forms of housing — emergency, transitional and permanent supportive — are necessary resources on the path out of homelessness, she said.
“The question is always, ‘Who’s right?’” Silva said. “The reality is, we’re all right.”