Columbus House, a homeless shelter in New Haven. Kyle Constable /

A new college graduate works three jobs to put food on the table for their family.  A dedicated mother of two has been in and out of homelessness five times over the last ten years. A United States veteran has lost three friends to overdose during the pandemic, and worries about their own trauma. These people are not our clients; they are our frontline staff, and they need our help.

People experiencing homelessness in our state, and those that serve them, do not have to imagine such terrible problems, they are living them every day. The emergency response system has never been fully funded by the Connecticut General Assembly to respond to homelessness as the crisis that it is. With hundreds of shelter beds full, and hundreds more on waitlists with no safe place to go, we are fearful of what is to come.

For decades, the Connecticut General Assembly has put the burden of ending homelessness on the grossly underpaid frontline workers of the emergency housing response system. Exposed to COVID-19 daily and working directly with the most vulnerable individuals and families in our state, many are living in poverty themselves. This lack of accountability must end, not so much for our sake but for the communities we serve.

Frontline workers take care of our communities’ most vulnerable members with thirty to fifty cents on the dollar of state support. This leads to the inability to maintain or expand facilities, or to provide the highest quality care that we know is possible and necessary for people who, through no fault of their own, suffer severe mental illness and emotional upheaval, who are cut loose from their families and friends. These heartbreaking stories come to our doors, asking – pleading, really – for food, a bed, compassion, connection, and services both short- and long-term so they don’t starve, freeze, or remain in a perpetual nightmare. Poverty wages compounded by lack of healthcare and opportunities for education and long-term financial planning within our agencies have led to staff burnout, turnover and homelessness for those who have dedicated their careers to fighting against it.

The time is quickly approaching when keeping up with the demands of emergency housing needs will become impossible, and the willingness and passion of our staff will not be enough.

Chronic underfunding by the legislature has been made worse by conditions beyond our control:

  • A rapid and steep increase in home prices has driven buyers into the rental market, causing a rapid and steep increase in rental prices and, in turn, driving low-income residents into homelessness. We cannot possibly serve all those who need our help with the current funding.
  • An end to the eviction moratorium is driving more people into homelessness faster than ever before, forcing many nonprofits to provide more services.
  • The lean labor market and increase in the minimum wage have left us competing for workers with – and losing out to — national corporate employers like Walmart, Amazon and Dunkin’ Donuts. When frontline workers leave for a couple of dollars more per hour – and honestly who can blame them? – their clients are cast emotionally adrift, losing in many cases the one person who was helping them out of the darkness.

The line between our clients and our coworkers is razor thin.  “Two of our workers actually needed our services during the pandemic– they were homeless themselves,” said Jennifer Paradis, the executive director of the Beth-El Center, which provides shelter, supportive housing and services in Milford. “Another got to work late because she had to wait until her paycheck showed up in her account so she could get an Uber to bring her here.”

In New Haven, Columbus House, a longstanding stalwart shelter and housing provider, continues to experience extraordinarily high staff turnover and is forced to incur overtime costs in order to safely staff the 24/7 shelter operation. “We’ve had clients tell us that their case manager is sometimes the only person they interact with all week,” said Margaret Middleton, Columbus House’s CEO “If that case manager can’t pay their bills with the salary we offer and leaves for a couple more dollars an hour, it’s the clients who suffer the most.”

The reality is that the state just doesn’t provide enough for us to adequately do the job. This system is unsustainable and unjust. This must change. Please join us in asking policymakers — including our legislative leaders and Governor Lamont — to hear us. Help us fund a system that works.

We know there are many demands on the state budget, but funding the homeless response system is critical. Our moral imperative is to serve people with dignity. This is not possible under the current circumstances.  There must be room in the budget to enable us to pay fair and competitive wages and benefits, provide rental assistance, and afford vital services. The pandemic has shown that essential workers are all around us, serving our food, stocking our shelves, collecting our garbage, and so on. Those working in our shelters and getting people housed are exposing themselves to great risks while providing great compassion for those most in need in our community.  They are among our most essential.

It is time for the people representing you in the legislature to know that you want the state budget to reflect the importance of this essential work. It is time for them to know that you want to see the end of homelessness in your community. Here’s what to do:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the Reaching Home Legislative Agenda.
  2. Call your legislators in the Connecticut General Assembly and make sure they are on board. Ask them if they are familiar with the Reaching Home Legislative Agenda, and tell them that this is an issue that you (their constituent) care about.
  3. Call Gov. Lamont’s office. Tell the governor that you believe in making homelessness rare, brief and one-time, but this can’t be done without building and funding a system that works.

Jennifer Paradis is executive director of the Beth-El Center, Inc. Patrick Dunn is executive director of the New Haven Pride Center. Jim Pettinelli is executive director of Liberty Community Services. The authors are the tri-chairs of the Greater New Haven Regional Alliance to End Homelessness.