A room full of temporary beds at Columbus House in 2017, where people experiencing homelessness spend their first days after arriving in the New Haven facility. Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

Connecticut’s homelessness response system needs more money to address the need that has sprung up since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, service providers told legislators Thursday.

House Bill 6554 would give $50 million to Connecticut’s homeless response system to fund cold weather services, increase service providers’ pay and pay for other infrastructure within the state’s homeless response system, advocates said during a public hearing at the legislative Housing Committee.

It was one of a couple of bills that aim to address issues related to homelessness. Other bills discussed include a measure that would establish a right to housing in the state and another to set up a commission on homelessness.

“People across Connecticut are facing housing challenges unlike we’ve seen in recent years,” said Evonne Klein, chief executive officer at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. “We need your help so that we can help.”

The 2022 annual census of the homeless population in Connecticut shows that the number of people experiencing homelessness increased for the first time in nearly a decade. It rose by 13% — from 2,594 in 2021 to 2,930 in 2022. That report is based on data collected in January.

Service providers said Thursday the increase is now about 39% year over year.

Tenaya Taylor, a Connecticut resident, testified about her experiences with homelessness both as a child and as an adult. She said she was unhoused last year, and it took her longer to finish school because of her experience with homelessness and that food was hard to come by.

“No one wants to be outside,” Taylor said. “Mice and bugs are in my house, because they don’t want to be outside.”

Inflation, heightened housing costs, increased evictions and a lack of housing overall are likely contributing to the increase, service providers said.

Service providers hope to see annual funding for the cold weather response, which includes additional emergency shelters. They also want higher salaries for workers, to attract and retain skilled staff.

Dina O’Neil, a case manager for veterans experiencing homelessness at Columbus House, said she’d been on the verge of homelessness herself because of low salaries. She was among a few workers who spoke about low wages and the need to either work a second job or get social support services.

“The case managers that provide services to the veterans do it because they care about the men and woman that served our country, even though the pay is not what we feel is fair, knowing we have families to support off the pay we receive and compare to what we do and how everything is going up in price,” O’Neil said in written testimony.

The bill also aims to help fund infrastructure in the state’s Coordinated Access Network, a regional system of shelters and service providers that help the unhoused population in Connecticut. Some of these infrastructure needs could include items such as the 2-1-1 system, which helps connect people to services.

Senate Bill 909 would establish a right to housing in Connecticut and charge a committee with reviewing housing policies to see how they address a right to housing and whether they meet the needs of certain vulnerable populations, including people experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities and people who have been involved with the criminal justice system.

“Housing is a human right, and it’s a basic survival need,” said Olivia Rinkes, a North Southington resident. She added that she’d had steady work her entire adult life but, because of heightened housing costs, can’t afford to live independently.

Many landlords opposed the bill, citing additional burdens associated with providing housing for people and concerns that the measure would erode their property rights. They asked that the bill be changed to add a landlord to the committee.

“This Bill establishes a committee to discuss making housing a human right but the committee is comprised entirely of Tenant Advocates and ZERO input from Housing Providers or Real Estate Professions,” John Souza, president of the Connecticut Coalition of Property Owners, said in written testimony. “Why would you not ask the people most acquainted with housing to participate?”

Internationally, the United Nations has established housing as a human right, saying that people have the right to adequate housing, or not having to worry about being evicted or having their home taken away. It also says that people should live somewhere “in keeping with your culture, and having access to appropriate services, schools, and employment.”

Another piece of legislation on the public hearing agenda Thursday would create a commission on homelessness to advise the legislature on issues such as providing shelter and services to the state’s unhoused population.

The focus on funding bills as well as other ways to help address homelessness in Connecticut has sprung from an “overwhelming demand” for services, said Kellyann Day, chief executive officer at homelessness service provider and shelter New Reach.

Providers said they are forced regularly to turn people away because their beds are full.

“Right now, we do not have nearly enough funding to meet the needs of the folks coming through our doors,” Day said. “We need your help.”

Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter and a Report for America corps member. She covers a variety of topics ranging from child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas' Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021.