About a decade ago, after Evonne Klein was named the first director of the newly formed Connecticut Department of Housing, one of her early moves was to join the national movement to end veteran homelessness, a daunting task that only three states have accomplished.
In 2016, Connecticut became the second state in the country to get official federal recognition for ending veteran homelessness. Virginia was the first.
Now, Klein, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, is among those leading a similar effort in Connecticut, this goal broader than the last: end homelessness altogether in a state that recently saw the homeless population increase for the first time in years.
With the help of a two-year $125,000 grant from Point32Health Foundation, the coalition is putting together a plan to end homelessness with an emphasis on beginning with the state’s aging population. The coalition is organizing nonprofits from across the state that offer a variety of services to those experiencing homelessness.
The plans will center perspectives of people who have been homeless and front-line employees who worked directly with clients, often in person, through the early parts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The fact is we know how to end homelessness in Connecticut,” Klein said. “We’ve had successes in the past with ending veteran homelessness.
“We need resources to support our actions.”
But what does it really mean to end homelessness? Are there really no veterans experiencing homelessness in Connecticut? And how do you even begin to tackle such an ambitious goal?
When people in the housing and homelessness world talk about “ending homelessness,” they typically mean that they are meeting the federal definition of what’s called “functional zero.”
Essentially, this means that the overall system designed to prevent homelessness and help people experiencing homelessness is ready. It means that workers can prevent homelessness as often as possible and ensure that when it does happen, it’s rare, brief and one-time.
So if someone does lose their housing, the system has a way to get them a new place quickly and help keep them from losing housing again. Typically, the service system has good data and information that helps them keep track of who is homeless and what services they need.
This means for veterans, there may be some experiencing homelessness, but the system is ready to help them.
The 2022 count of the state’s homeless population showed that there were 149 veterans experiencing homelessness on one night in January. All but nine of those were in either emergency shelters or transitional housing, according to the report.
Connecticut’s system has struggled in recent months with an influx of need. This session, homelessness service providers put in pleas for $50 million in the state budget to rescue the system.
They want annual funding for the cold weather response, including for emergency shelters. They also want higher salaries for workers so they can attract and retain skilled staff.
Their funding bill passed the Housing Committee and will head to the Appropriations Committee next.
The state has also seen increased need recently. Inflation, an affordable housing shortage, heightened evictions and lingering economic effects of the pandemic have led more to homelessness.
The 2022 annual count of Connecticut’s homeless population 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 January 2021 to 2,930 in January 2022.
Service providers said in a public hearing last month that the increase was closer to about 39% year over year.
The Point32 grant will help fund the coalition’s work, particularly as it relates to the aging population. The group will also provide technical support and help foster connections between Connecticut and other states that are doing similar work.
“Housing is a key social determinant of health for all people,” said Christina Mathews, a program officer on Point32’s community investments team. “For the foundation, it’s something we definitely want to support.”
Last year, nearly 30% of the households served by Connecticut’s emergency shelter system are headed by someone who is 55 or older, according to a data dashboard.
Connecticut service providers are also seeing more people over 55 experiencing homelessness after an eviction, said Sarah Fox, chief operating officer at the Connecticut coalition.
The group’s new plan is called Connecticut CAN End Homelessness. A CAN is a coordinated access network, or a regional group of providers that work together to address homelessness.
“The Connecticut CAN initiative that this funding is for is really to develop a comprehensive statewide plan,” Mathews said. “It’s important to note that they are really centering those who are in positions of the front lines as key decision makers in this process.”
Yezenia Lebron, one of those frontline workers, started working at New Reach in New Haven after her own experience with homelessness. She’s now a recovery support specialist for women struggling with addiction.
That’s the perspective she thinks she can bring to the conversation about homelessness. She knows what works and how to motivate the women. She knows firsthand how hard it is to focus on your longer-term goals if you don’t have a place to sleep.
“When you’re homeless, you’re not focused on your goals,” Lebron said. “You’re focused on ‘Where am I going to lay my head?’”
She said she wished she had a peer counselor when she was struggling, someone who had already been through it all. She’s hoping to emphasize that need for human connection as the nonprofits work on their plan to tackle homelessness.
“We are really going to the folks who are on the front line,” Klein said. “They know what works, what’s effective and what doesn’t work.”
Over the summer, coalition leadership met via Zoom with hundreds of people from shelters, government agencies and other groups to talk about reenvisioning their plan. Past approaches have dealt with chronic homelessness, veteran homelessness and pushes for political change to prevent homelessness.
They’ve formed an organizational structure including committees and subcommittees to discuss issues such as youth homelessness, data and advocacy work.
When they were working to end veteran homelessness, service providers focused on “100-day” challenges. For example, one goal was to house 100 people in 100 days.
“Not all the first 100-day challenges were successful, but the learning that occurred, whether it was through success or failure, was so valuable,” Klein said. “That led us all to our success.”
While some details of the new statewide plan aren’t set, the coalition plans to focus on what has worked as well as “action items,” particularly ideas from front line workers like Lebron.
“Once the system was established and we really had become a national leader, as with anything, a certain level of fatigue set in,” Fox said. “We are looking to re-enliven the work.”