Makeshift beds under the highway in the north end of Hartford. (photo by Jose Vega)
Makeshift beds under the highway in the north end of Hartford. Jose Vega

Annually, the State of Connecticut’s Department of Housing provides discretionary money to homeless service providers across the 169 towns to coordinate an emergency response that includes day and night time shelter during cold weather, which is defined typically as December 1st to March 31.

The concept of pop-up beds in the winter months is that it brings people inside who are normally shelter resistant due to the temperature drops, while addressing inflow.  We do not have enough shelter beds across the state to shelter everyone who is unhoused, so this is a way to try and temporarily meet that need during a high-risk time.

Caitlin Rose

This year, the Friendship Service Center, Inc. (FSC) operated 40 cold-weather beds in New Britain in a church basement, increasing from 22 beds.  We did not always have places for everyone in need to sleep from night to night throughout the season. And now, without those beds, we have a new crisis. 

There are currently approximately 4,600 people experiencing  homelessness in Connecticut, a number that includes children, and is an increase from previous years for a variety of reasons. Emergency shelter is the quickest way to stabilize people and keep them safe while they work toward obtaining stable housing.

While I applaud the state’s investment in emergency response to mitigate unsheltered community members dying on the streets from hypothermia, the distinction in temperature, and need, between March 31 and April 1 is arbitrary.  Where are the 40 people being sheltered in a church supposed to go to sleep tonight? What can my staff tell them to lessen the blow of having to return to sleeping outside now, in weather no warmer than it was yesterday?

The way to end homelessness is to keep people housed, and house people experiencing homelessness quickly. The FSC, and many of our colleagues, are here for everything in between. But it requires funding and investments from the state, and it cannot be done in isolation. 

HB6554, An Act to Rescue the Homelessness Response System, includes a $50 million funding ask, including increased funding for staffing (so that our employees may be compensated as the career professionals that they are); annualized cold weather funding; regional coordination support; and flexible rental assistance dollars to support the rapid rehousing of people in shelter or on the streets to create resource churn. There is currently no inclusion of funding increases to any part of our state’s homelessness response system in the Governor’s proposed budget. 

I spoke with several of my Hope Connection Center staff, who operate our drop-in center program that has been the location for daytime cold weather services 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Most admitted crying at some point in the day, alone in their offices and at times with the clients themselves, over the pain and helplessness of watching people struggle to find alternative options for safety when it was already known that they had none. People don’t sleep in a church basement if they have other options. Both staff and clients alike knew this program was ending, yet neither could fathom how the reality would hit them when the time came. 

I myself cried this morning, as I always do when it rains, after experiencing the joy of waking up in my warm, cozy bed to the sound of rain on my bathroom skylight. I am hit with the realization that there are hundreds of people cold and wet after a long night outside. The fact that there is nothing we can do for our clients in this moment frustrates that sadness further.

The state holds the power to fund emergency shelter and protect unsheltered constituents, and I urge the Appropriations committee and Gov. Ned Lamont to take this responsibility seriously. The FSC, and our numerous statewide partners, are here to respond to the growing homelessness crisis in the state, and will manage it effectively and compassionately as we have been funded to do for all of these years. But we must be funded to do it. 

The FSC has applied for capital improvement funds to renovate and expand our emergency shelter program at 241 Arch St. We are hoping that this revitalization will bring our potential shelter capacity from 39 beds to about 85 beds. It will likely still not be enough. Until we address housing and homelessness as a very real crisis, nothing will be.

Caitlin Rose is the Executive Director of the Friendship Service Center, Inc. in New Britain.