Julianne Varacchi / Connecticut Public

I looked around for a spot to lay my nursing supplies, but rodent droppings were everywhere. The water had been turned off and the rental was chilly.  I peeled off layers of soiled dressings and winced as the foul odor of the wound hit me. As a community health nurse, I can attest to the fact that our housing crisis is a health crisis.

Had the patient had safe housing, his subsequent hospital emergency visit would have been avoided. Inadequate housing sabotages health, yet it’s pervasive. Connecticut lacks nearly 90,000 adequate affordable homes and where we put these homes matters.

Many people have little exposure to the housing crisis because of how segregated our state is. Connecticut is one of the most economically, ethnically, and racially segregated states.

According to the Partnership for Strong Communities, 67% of Connecticut’s people of color live in only 8% of the municipalities. Among U.S. states, our state ranks second in terms of having the largest income gap between rich and poor.   These disparities negatively impact everyone. A 20-year study printed in The Economist found that U.S. states with the greatest income inequities suffered the most from violent crime. A Gallup study found similar results. Uplifting the poor truly benefits all of us.

People tend to blame idleness, drugs, or mental health issues for homelessness, but, more often, these are the result of, and not the cause of, homelessness. Avery Lenhart, executive director of the Windham No Freeze Project, observes “It’s no longer uncommon for people in shelters to be employed full-time, some with two or three jobs; yet they cannot afford reasonable housing.” 

Jerusalem Demsas, staff writer for The Atlantic, highlights that “If mental-health issues or drug abuse were major drivers of homelessness, then places with higher rates of these problems would see higher rates of homelessness. They don’t. What prevents at-risk people from falling into homelessness at high rates is simple: They have more affordable-housing options.”

Discrimination, unjust zoning laws, gentrification, rising rents, and not-in-my-backyard thinking are major barriers to affordable housing. Things have gotten so bad that the state legislature called upon Gov. Ned Lamont to prioritize equity in the 2024/2025 budget plan to address housing, healthcare, and economic inequities. Critics question if his plan will work.

What steps can improve disparities in our state?  For one, we need to expand our idea of what makes a good neighbor and stop fighting construction of affordable housing. Developer Harold Foley says community opposition is one of the biggest impediments to building affordable housing. Over three dozen Connecticut towns have obstructed the building of affordable homes for over two decades.  Erin Boggs, director of Open Communities Alliance, says “affordable housing conjures up for many people, high-rise public housing developments, which have failed and aren’t being built anymore.  “What’s being built instead is much more likely to be mixed income, really beautiful housing.”

Investing in affordable housing would lessen homelessness and lower healthcare costs by preventing disease, accidents, and chronic illness and treating these conditions before they require emergency care. Fostering inclusive communities across Connecticut would allow us to enjoy more varied cultural affiliations, broaden our perspectives, and teach us to live better together in our global world. Hartford and other cities have disproportionately made space for affordable housing. It’s time to end segregation in Connecticut.

Pick up the phone, text, or email your legislators and urge them to support policies that secure safe affordable housing across the state. Connecticut Senate Bill (S.B.) 427 proposes that homelessness be declared a public health crisis. House Bill 6781 aims to ensure clean and safe rental housing.  S.B. 168 would establish housing as a right. S.B. 4 would foster equitable housing opportunities in communities throughout the state.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that many people are just a paycheck away from homelessness. Surely, we can muster the will and resources to get children and adults off the streets and into adequate affordable housing.  It’s a problem we know how to solve if only we have the resolve to do it.

Rosanne C. Santos RN is a graduate student in the advance practice registered nurse (APRN) program at the University of Connecticut.