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

In the nearly eight months Christiana Anderson has been staying at a New London shelter, there were a few times she thought she’d found an apartment for herself and her teenage son.

But each time, the option fell through.

Anderson lost her housing in January, after her son had behavioral problems and the family members she was staying with decided they didn’t want them there anymore. “I was shaky. I was just thinking of how this could have happened to me,” she said of the day she lost her place to live.

Anderson is one of many people experiencing homelessness who are spending months looking for a new place to live in Connecticut, faced with high rent costs and a dearth of housing they can afford.

Statewide the average number of days for an emergency shelter stay was 84 or 85 days between October 2020 and September 2022. That number dropped to 77 days from October 2022 to June 2023.

But providers say in more recent months, they’re seeing more people struggling for longer to find a home. Many said the goal is to get someone into housing within 30 days of entering a shelter — quicker shifts to housing have been shown to be cost-effective, better for the community and result in good outcomes for the unhoused population.

But heightened rent prices and a low apartment vacancy rate in Connecticut have made it difficult for many people experiencing homelessness to find a place they can afford.

“Homelessness right now is a housing issue,” said Kellyann Day, chief executive officer at New Haven-based New Reach. “It is strictly an issue of housing. There are people of course who struggle with other barriers but they would normally be able to find some sort of supportive housing.”

In 2022, the state’s emergency shelter system served nearly 5,500 people, according to online data. The last couple of annual counts of people experiencing homelessness in January have shown increases in the state’s homeless population, following years of decreases.

“We just don’t have enough shelter beds for our current need,” said Deirdre DiCara, chief executive officer at Friends in Service to Humanity of Northwest Connecticut, or FISH.

Connecticut lacks about 89,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters. The state also doesn’t have enough “starter homes,” or lower-cost houses that are usually more affordable for first-time homebuyers, which is pushing more people to stay in the rental market, real estate agents say. This means there are fewer available apartments across the state.

“Housing is going in, but it’s expensive,” said Peggy Miceli, executive director at Covenant Shelter in New London.

Providers are worried about the additional stress longer stays could mean for Connecticut’s shelter system, especially as winter nears and people who are staying outside will need a place to stay warm at night. 

More senior citizens and families with children are staying in shelters, many of them for the first time. They’re being pushed out of their housing by rising rents, providers said.

Median rents in Connecticut were at $2,000 earlier this year, a slight increase over last year, according to Connecticut Public reporting

Tenants across the state have said in public hearings and interviews that they’re experiencing rent increases of upwards of 50% in many cases.

Landlords have said they need to charge more to maintain their profit margins because of inflation. They’re paying more for repairs and insurance, among other costs.

Rent increases were a hot-button topic during the legislative session as tenants’ rights groups pushed for annual caps on rent increases. The measure did not make it out of the Housing Committee.

Although tenant groups have said they’ll push for it again next session, lawmakers were hesitant to offer it as a solution in post-session interviews. A law passed in 2022, however, expanded the number of fair rent commissions in Connecticut, one measure advocates have said aims to keep rent prices down. The commissions hear and investigate rent increase complaints.

Dave Boido lived on the streets and in the woods in Torrington for months before going to a shelter. He lost his housing when his lease renewal came up ahead of a sale of the building he lived in.

His new lease terms would set the rent at $1,000, marking a substantial increase from the $650. He moved out and spent several months living under a bridge — sandwiching several sleeping bags between tarps — and set up an encampment in the woods for a while.

Eventually, he found a spot at FISH, where he’s glad to be out of the elements.

“There’s just nothing affordable out there,” Boido said.

Boido, 64, like many older residents, has a fixed income, which makes paying for rent increases difficult. Several shelter providers said they’re seeing more senior citizens who have become homeless in recent weeks.

“We’re seeing a rise of more senior citizens and many of them are coming with complex medical needs from behavioral health to medical health, so that takes some time to address those challenges,” said Denise Williams, chief executive officer at Inspirica, a Stamford-based provider.

More people are also coming in after facing eviction, providers said.

“We definitely have a lot of folks with evictions on their record and with landlords receiving double, triple the amount of applications for one rental unit, they’re no longer even considering someone with an eviction history,” said Sarah Pavone, director of strategy at Journey Home, a Hartford-based provider.

Evictions in Connecticut increased after pandemic-era protections expired. Tenants with eviction records often have a difficult time finding new housing.

Caitlin Rose, executive director at Friendship Service Center, said her organization had hired someone to help facilitate relationships with local landlords. That’s been one of their most successful programs aimed at getting people housed, she said.

But because the position was funded through the federal pandemic aid, she fears they’ll lose it soon, she added.

“It’s single-handedly the most effective role that I have seen,” Rose said.

She, as well as other providers, said they’re worried about the coming cold months. With people staying in shelters longer, there are fewer beds available. Typically as it gets cold, many who have been staying outside need to come to shelters to stay warm.

During the legislative session, providers had asked for $50 million in the state budget to support the homelessness response system, including by annualizing cold weather funding, which is typically granted as emergency money when it gets cold. The request didn’t get through the committee process.

“We are very concerned about this winter season,” Pavone said. “I think there’s a real threat and potential of folks dying from the elements on the street if we are not able to set up a robust cold weather system.”

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.