Fewer homeless in Connecticut, data shows, but problems still persist

While a majority of people sleeping in Connecticut homeless shelters are from the state’s struggling cities, people from the wealthiest towns tend to spend more time in shelters when they do end up there.

This is just one of the conclusions that can be drawn from an examination of data compiled by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

The state has made progress reducing the homeless population in recent years. The state saw one of the largest 11-year decreases in unsheltered homeless counts, 38 percent from 2007 to 2017, according to an October report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Connecticut has also eliminated very specific types of homelessness, such as chronic veteran homelessness, while hotlines for people who call 2-1-1 for immediate access to shelters are now operating 24-7 for most of Connecticut.

Still, homelessness remains a problem that touches every community.

More than 8,000 people from the state’s poor cities and wealthy suburbs spent at least a night in a Connecticut homeless shelter last year. That included more than 1,500 children.

As the below map illustrates, the people who end up in homeless shelters come from every part of the state.

You might notice from the map that the colors become less intense from year to year. That’s because there has been a decline in the sheltered population. The decline in that count is tied to a decline in the number of beds available in shelters, according to the Coalition.

The number of people entering shelters over a given year is just one measure of homelessness and housing instability. There are also official “point-in-time” counts, conducted nationwide in late January, that include unsheltered and sheltered homeless people, and there’s research not limited to homelessness that shows more than half a million Connecticut households earning above poverty wages struggle to cover basic expenses, of which housing is a large portion.

While shelters only represent part of the picture, a wealth of data on people in shelters, called the Homeless Management Information System offers a fair amount of insight about that population. The Coalition runs the federally mandated information system, which provides data about each individual that spends time in most shelters. Some shelters, like those for fleeing domestic violence, are not part of the information system.

Here’s what the Mirror found while examining three years of data from the system, covering 2015 through 2017.

1. Most come from just a few cities

Connecticut has a lot of concentrated wealth and poverty, and homelessness is no different.

In order, Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury accounted for half of the total number of people spending time in shelters in 2017.

Together, more than 2,000 people in shelters claimed those four cities as their last permanent residence. That’s out of 4,000 people who lived in Connecticut and for which complete data were available.

A total of 83 percent of the people staying in shelters in 2017 came from just 20 cities and towns, while a mere 17 percent came from the state’s remaining 149 towns or from outside of the state.

2. More come from wealthiest towns than from moderate-wealth towns

Homelessness affects the state’s most densely populated and poorest cities the most, but among the rest of the state, more people enter shelters from the wealthiest towns than from moderate-wealth towns.

In fact, the wealthiest 25 percent of towns accounted for almost exactly as many of the sheltering homeless as the middle 50 percent of towns over the three years we examined. That’s based on the most recent town wealth ranks from the state’s Department of Education.

“What we know is that homelessness […] is everywhere, and the cost of living in expensive towns is expensive,” said Madeline Ravich a development advisor and director of the Be Homeful project for the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

3. Farther to travel for those from most rural towns

Most seeking shelter beds were able to stay in a shelter in the town where they most recently had a permanent address.

But for those who did travel, the average distance was about 12 miles as the crow flies.

That number masks some of the long distances people traveled from their last residence to a shelter bed. A family of four — one adult and three children — from New Haven ended up staying in a Killingly shelter last year. That’s about 85 miles.

People from less populated cities and towns had some of the longest travel times in general.

Ravich cautioned that decreasing travel time from the last residence isn’t a chief priority because it would mean building more shelters, rather than preventing homelessness. Her organization would rather see people not need shelters.

“Our goal isn’t to build more shelters,” she said, “it’s to help people stay housed in the first place.”

4. Average stay: A month and a half or more

People spent more time in shelters in 2017 compared with 2015 and 2016.

That length of stay has increased from 45 days in 2015 and 2016 to 61 in 2017 — roughly increasing from about a month and a half to two months.

People from the wealthiest 25 percent of towns typically spent more time in shelters — 71 days — compared with 52 and 59 days, respectively, for people from the middle 50 percent of towns and the poorest 25 percent of towns.

Ravich said it could take longer for people from towns with a higher cost of living to get back on their feet because of a lack of housing options in pricier places.

“Getting back into housing in those areas could be challenging and people do want to go where their support networks are,” Ravich said.

That family of four from New Haven spent 45 days in the shelter in Killingly.

5. Keeping people out of these numbers

Providing shelter is only one part of the strategy to help the homeless population. Another strategy is “diverting” people from entering shelters in the first place. That means using money — an average of $1,000 per family — to help avoid a more costly downward spiral, according to the Coalition.

While a single stroke of bad luck can push a family over the edge into homelessness, sometimes another push can prevent it.

That has meant helping a father of three make arrangements with his landlord to stay housed after losing his job, giving him time to find new employment, the Coalition said.  In another case it meant helping a mother and her children stay housed when she was injured on the job and workers’ compensation hadn’t yet kicked in.

The Coalition has been raising money for this purpose. This month and through the end of December, for each $25 that’s raised for diversions, a family in a shelter will receive a toy bear, a book, or a baby gift, while the donation will go directly to support these diversions.

The data shows that people are being kept out of homeless shelters at higher rates. From Nov. 1, 2017 through Oct. 31 of this year, 32 percent of people who needed emergency housing  were diverted, up from 19 percent the year before.

Among families, diversion rates are higher, increasing from 39 percent to 56 percent over the same year-long period.

Ravich said that diversion is more successful for families because they do not tend to include people who are homeless because of a severe disability that would perpetuate homelessness. Instead, interventions can be all that they need to attain stable housing.

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