When they spent the night at the soup kitchen, Brandé Radford and her two young children shoved tables out of the way so they could all sleep on cots arranged in the area normally reserved for meals.
When they slept at a family member’s home, they all huddled together on the couch for the night. And when they stayed in the car, Radford struggled to rest, worrying about the effects of the late summer heat on her son’s health.
The family hasn’t had a steady place to stay for months following their eviction over the summer.
Now Radford is fighting to understand a wide variety of parameters and programs that require her to be in a shelter or living outside rather than staying on a family member’s couch or in a hotel in order to access housing programs or vouchers. Navigating several applications for programs and housing can be complicated for families in crisis, Radford said.
“Everything’s a mess,” Radford said. “You’ve got to get your kids to school, you have to wash the clothes, feed them, make sure they do their homework. It’s all this, and I have to be in a shelter?”
Family homelessness used to be rare, and programs that serve the unhoused population were able to get people in new housing quickly. That’s changed in recent months.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people have struggled with finding affordable housing. Homelessness has risen for the past two years, and family homelessness has been up this year. Although the number can fluctuate, it’s new to see several unsheltered families at the same time, providers said.
There has also been a rise in the number of families with children experiencing homelessness. It’s hard for people to find a place to stay because of the lack of affordable housing, and many families are facing eviction or rent increases they can’t afford, providers and advocates said.
Connecticut officials have said that increasing homelessness in the state constitutes a crisis.
“Shelter is kind of a finite resource, and there’s lots of intended thoughtfulness around ensuring families have safe places to be,” said Jenn Paradis, executive director at the Beth-El Center in Milford. “However, there are more families facing literal homelessness than ever before.”
The homelessness response system is overstrained and underfunded, providers said. During the last legislative session, they asked for $50 million in state money for the network of homelessness service providers to ensure cold weather funding and offer staff raises, among other things. They received only $5 million for cold weather funding.
Lawmakers have said that they’ll work on the issue in the next session, which is scheduled to begin in February.
Before the pandemic, Connecticut was typically at what homelessness experts call “functional zero” for family homelessness, meaning that it was rare and brief. There are now about 40 families experiencing homelessness, according to data provided Oct. 10.
That data is collected through the state’s By Name List, a database of families and individuals who have gone through an intake process to get into shelter or programs and whom providers have entered into the official system. Providers have been keeping another dataset of families they’re aware of who may not have gone through the By Name List process.
Data from providers shows that the official numbers are likely an undercount, said Sarah Fox, chief executive officer at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. The coalition’s data has about 293 households experiencing homelessness, and 478 total unhoused children.
Shelters are often at capacity, meaning it’s hard for some families to get into facilities that give them easy access to case workers so they can be added to wait lists for programs to get them into housing.
“We’re having more people coming in the door and fewer leaving. So once a family hits our system, and they actually come into homelessness, our resources are very scarce,” Fox said.
The state Department of Housing recently announced the addition of 485 new housing vouchers for residents across the state aimed at reducing family homelessness, but these are going quickly.
The qualifications also vary by voucher type, making it confusing for families, according to providers and people experiencing homelessness.
If someone has a voucher, they contribute about a third of their income to rent, and vouchers cover the rest. Of the new state vouchers, 150 are going to families involved with Head Start, an early childhood education program for those with low incomes.
For Radford and her children, Wisdom and Knowledge, who are 7 and 9, it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been weeks, and they’re still bouncing from place to place. There have been times they’re not sure where they’re going to stay for the night until dinnertime.
“I’m going to do my best, but I really need to find the path ahead to where I can raise my kids. Let me be the good mom that they deserve,” Radford said.
After years of living in Tennessee, Radford moved to Connecticut to be closer to family earlier this year.
Her oldest daughter, a 20-year-old who struggles with opioid addiction, moved in with her and the two younger children. Because of the addiction, she started exhibiting some troubling behavior. The landlord put an eviction notice on the door June 1, Radford said.
“They told her that if she doesn’t leave, then we’ve got to go,” Radford said. “I wasn’t going to leave my daughter, knowing that she could overdose on the streets.”
She recalled earlier days of not knowing where her daughter was and driving around for hours, looking for her. She’d bring along Narcan, an emergency treatment for drug overdoses, just in case.
So she tried to help her daughter so they could all stay. But at the start of June, she got the notice from her landlord that they’d have to leave.
Her younger children are having a hard time with the instability, she said. She worries over her son’s health, how his legs swelled up when it got too hot in August in the car, and how he’s coping mentally.
Her daughter, Wisdom, likes to draw. One day, she sketched a picture of her mom standing next to the house she said she envisioned as their future home.
Many of the new vouchers from the state Department of Housing have already been given out to families, said Kelly Fitzgerald, vice president of economic mobility at United Way of Greater New Haven.
The New Haven area had 55 vouchers to give out, and all but four had been promised to families as of Tuesday. Fitzgerald said earlier this month that she anticipated that the rest would be given out shortly.
“We’re hopeful that we will be able to match and utilize those vouchers and then other resources that they free up, but we also need to name the reality of the lack of affordable housing and the barriers to house families with evictions,” Fitzgerald said.
Families with evictions on their record often struggle to find a new place to live, experts say. Fitzgerald said the vouchers are prioritized for families that are unsheltered, rather than those who are sleeping on family members’ couches.
Definition of homelessness
The type of homelessness — or where exactly a family without a permanent place to call home is staying — helps decide whether they qualify for vouchers, said Steve DiLella, director of the individual and family support programs for the state Department of Housing.
The definitions of “homeless” are different between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Education, for example, DiLella said. HUD doesn’t typically count people as homeless if they are living in hotels or motels, according to federal documents. The education department does.
“We do have to follow our HUD rules,” DiLella said. “And I think this is where we get sometimes stuck a little bit, because when you look at the way that the federal government defines homelessness, they actually define it differently between their own federal agencies.”
The various definitions and qualifications have led to some confusion for families, like Radford’s, that have moved around a lot. She’s been in emergency shelter, stayed on family member’s couches, spent days in the car and is now in a longer-term shelter in New Haven.
Add to that a strained homeless response system, and some people can be left waiting for help, providers said.
“I’ve never had to deal with this before,” Radford said. “But when a person actually needs help, where’s the help?”
In some cases, families will become ineligible for certain aid by going to a hotel, said Carla Miklos, executive director at Operation Hope of Fairfield County.
“A challenge with homeless families is that sometimes they can find short stays with friends or family, or sometimes someone will pay for a hotel stay,” Miklos said. “That can sometimes disqualify them from opportunities.”
Sometimes, families are staying in temporary emergency — or triage — spots while they wait for a longer-term shelter bed to open. Radford’s family did this for several nights, but she said the conditions were often uncomfortable. The soup kitchen space, for example, was designed for serving meals, not for sleeping, she said.
Paradis said the Beth-El Center has beds of this type, but it doesn’t give families the same access to case workers that a longer-term program does.
“They have already fallen through so many gaps in our social safety net,” Paradis said. “These families are already traumatized by what they’ve been through. So the triage program is really a cot in a room and a commitment that they’re the family assigned to that program for that night. It does mean that you’re prioritized for the next shelter bed, so that’s positive, but we hear from a lot of the families in this program that they need a case manager, more help.”
Radford said she experienced that early on when she was trying to get into a program. She works at a day care, and applying for programs and housing after work without help or guidance left her exhausted.
After months of moving around waiting for a shelter bed to open up, Radford is now in the longer-term shelter, hoping for a voucher or a spot in a rapid rehousing program to become available while she and the kids are in a shelter. Rapid rehousing is a program that provides rental assistance and aims to get people into an apartment quickly.
“I’ve been looking, and I’m so tired,” Radford said. “I have a job, and I’m so tired.”
In some cases, providers said, people get vouchers but aren’t able to find a place to accept it in the allotted time. Typically, people have 30 days to find a home to accept their voucher, with the possibility of an extension.
“There are so few available units, we’re beginning to lose vouchers,” Fox said.
And for families with children that may need more bedrooms and more space, it can be even harder to find an apartment that will work.
In addition to the vouchers, DiLella said, the state is examining other ways to assist families and divert them from homelessness if they are at risk of eviction.
“Before the pandemic, it was rare to find any family that was outside or unsheltered,” DiLella said. “So we would use our resources where we could to ensure that they had active shelter placement.”
As the number of families experiencing homelessness has risen, so has the length of shelter stays. Data from service providers shows that families are spending an average of 158 days in shelter.
The goal is typically to keep it to 30 days or less, Fox said.
The system needs people to get into housing so it can accommodate the newly homeless, providers said. And longer waits for a shelter bed leave families without needed stability.
“When you’re living life day to day in that way, it’s unreasonable to make your long-term plan from this position,” Beth-El’s Paradis said. “Families are tired, they’re stressed. They really need more shelter stability before that next plan can really be thoughtfully executed.”
Kids in stable housing tend to have better outcomes in other areas of life, such as education, DiLella said.
Miklos said her staff are trying to work to find more landlords who are willing to take tenants at affordable rates. She said many landlords who didn’t get paid during the pandemic struggled to make the money back up, and some have raised rents.
“We continue to try to reiterate that homelessness is a lack of affordable housing issue,” Fitzgerald said. “If we had enough affordable units for our community, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”