What price homelessness?
Can you put a price tag on what it means to lose your housing? Apparently, you can. The Commissioner of the Department of Housing recently testified at a public hearing that it costs the state of Connecticut $33,000 if a person who becomes homeless stays homeless for a year.
The $388,000 proposed cut from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) Legal Services line item is the money used to provide legal representation to eligible clients in legal matters related to their housing. Individuals who are eligible for services not only must meet income requirements based on the federal poverty level, they must also have (or be perceived to have) a mental health condition.
Connecticut Legal Rights Project (CLRP) handles approximately 550 of these housing cases each year. This proposed cut represents 42 percent of our state funding; CLRP receives additional funding under a consent decree to represent people who are inpatient at state-operated facilities – Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, Connecticut Mental Health Center in New Haven, and Greater Bridgeport Community Mental Health Center in Bridgeport. Legal representation of clients in housing matters is paid for by the funds that are proposed to be eliminated. We will continue to represent DMHAS-eligible clients on other civil legal matters, but we will no longer be able to represent them on housing issues without these funds.
Our attorneys and paralegal advocates perform their jobs incredibly well. Over the last several years, less than one percent of the clients for whom a housing case was opened were homeless at the end of their case. Clients either maintained their housing or had access to housing. CLRP representation not only prevents homelessness, it saves the state money. If all of those clients became homeless and remained homeless for a year, that could cost the state as much as 18 million dollars. If only 12 clients, unable to access legal representation, became homeless and stayed homeless for one year, the savings to the state from cutting CLRP’s budget will have evaporated.
What does it mean to be able to keep a roof over your head? Earlier this year, we at Connecticut Legal Rights Project asked people to tell us #WhatHousingMeansToMe. The answers we received were at once heartening and heartbreaking: “security comfort protection”; “self-worth self-esteem”; “having stability and being a product[ive] member of society”; “the difference between life and death”; “living on my own and not being on the street”; “sleeping well at night having a roof over my head and just having a little something left over for the kids to have pizza or ice cream”; “freedom!”
Investing in legal services is a smart investment – not only of dollars, but of human capital. When people have stable housing, the other pieces of their life tend to fall into place. I know. My answer to the question posed was this: “Safety. Security. Stability. Having a roof over my head meant I could focus my energy on getting better and staying well.” I am a person living in recovery from a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I have been privileged in that I have never once had to worry about a roof over my head; I lived in a dorm, with my parents, or with my husband. I had the mental energy to focus on doing the hard work of maintaining my mental health. Everyone ought to have that same opportunity.
Zealous advocacy by CLRP means that a client who has been hospitalized since March of 2016 but is now ready for discharge will be able to continue her recovery, safe in the knowledge that she retains the Section 8 voucher that makes her housing affordable.
Public housing agencies have the authority to grant extensions of search time, and must approve additional search time if needed as a reasonable accommodation to make the program accessible to and usable by a person with disabilities.
I am not the first to say that budgets are moral documents; they are a reflection of this state’s values. This state has a history of investing in mental health services and supports. Connecticut has been a national leader in the mental health arena. This state has a history of investing in supportive housing and working to end homelessness. This state has a history of caring about its most marginalized citizens. Continuing to do so is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
Kathleen Flaherty is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project.