The number of homeless people in Connecticut has increased for the first time in nearly a decade, by about 13% from 2021 to 2022, according to a report released this week.
Over the past eight years, the total number of homeless people in Connecticut has dropped, according to the 2021 report on the issue. This year, the number has risen from 2,594 to 2,930, likely due to the continued economic fallout from the pandemic coupled with the costs of inflation and a lack of housing, experts said.
“I think a 13% increase in homelessness after a decade of year-over-year decreases is really, really quite devastating,” said Michele Conderino, executive director of Open Doors Community, a provider homeless service provider based in Norwalk.
Many low-income residents of the state are struggling to recover economically and find housing. And the number of homeless people could rise in the coming months, providers said.
“I haven’t seen this in my 20 years working in Connecticut, this difficulty,” said David Rich, general manager of Housing Collective in Fairfield County.
Connecticut is divided into two “continuums of care” for the homeless population. In the Opening Doors Fairfield County continuum of care, 237 homeless people were female and 365 were male; 280 were black, 271 were white, and just over 200 were Hispanic.
Despite the overall increase, the number of chronically homeless people has dropped by approximately 30%, from 167 to 117. Chronically homeless people are homeless for at least a year or more and have a serious mental illness, substance abuse disorder or physical disability.
Providers attributed the drop to the state’s emphasis on an approach that prioritizes stable housing before working on other issues.
Chronically homeless people are disproportionately homeless, meaning they live outdoors or in places not intended for human habitation.
Connecticut figures are based on the state’s annual point-in-time count. The count is a census of the homeless population, carried out during one day in January.
The pandemic has changed the way Connecticut’s count is done.
Previously, service providers sent the number of people in shelters and others went out to count and survey the population living outside. Since last year, the information has been collected from the Homeless Management Information System, a statewide database where service providers can enter client information. It is complemented by real-time data from programs.
Continuums of care submit count data to the federal government. Data helps determine grant funding for vendors.
“More and more on the rise”
Longstanding housing issues and new economic forces in Connecticut and across the country have combined in recent months to create what advocates have called a “perfect storm” for people experiencing poverty and homelessness.
Connecticut is short of about 85,400 affordable rental housing units available to its lowest-income residents. And overall, only about 2% of the state’s rental units were available at the end of August, giving Connecticut the lowest vacancy rate in the nation.
The exacerbated lack of housing coincides with inflation which has driven up everyday household costs such as groceries and rent.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden’s administration urged municipalities to use American Rescue Plan Act money to address the lack of affordable housing and housing insecurity, but few cities in Connecticut l ‘did.
The latest release of federal data showed that only about 1% of municipal ARPA money was allocated to housing issues. Some cities have since announced plans to use the money for housing.
New Haven on Wednesday announced its I’M HOME initiative which provides money for security deposits or down payments and closing costs for residents.
Still, more aid programs are needed, providers said.
When the statewide housing assistance program stopped taking new applications in February, providers saw more people lose their homes. A few months prior, many pandemic-era protections for renters had ended.
In Connecticut, evictions increased after the program stopped taking new applications. March saw the highest number of deposits since the start of the pandemic.
“People coming to the shelter now have been housed and [lost housing] either through evictions or the price of their housing,” Conderino said.
Few people who lose their homes enter the homeless service system immediately. First, they will try to stay with friends or family and call 211 for services, Rich said.
This means that the number of hotline calls is often an indicator of housing instability, which can lead to homelessness. Over the past year, the line has averaged about 1,000 calls a day related to housing and shelter, according to its data dashboard.
“I think we’ll see more and more people who are in dire housing straits,” Rich said. “Unfortunately, I think it will continue to increase.”
During the pandemic, shelters often tried to place people in hotels to avoid congregate living spaces. Some people who were lined up with friends or family decided to enter the system in order to have their own place and stay safe from the virus, Rich added.
And while housing vouchers or rent assistance are available in some cases in Fairfield County, where Rich is focused, it is often difficult for people to find an apartment.
“We have Section 8 vouchers, we have short-term and long-term rapid relocation grants,” he said. “Finding and navigating the housing market has really created more of a bottleneck.”
Brennden Colbert, the ad hoc quality coordinator at Advancing Connecticut Together, said he thinks there’s been a decline in chronic homelessness because of the pandemic-era supports available to social service groups. This is in addition to existing efforts to address chronic homelessness in the state, he said.
Conderino attributed the decline in chronic homelessness to the state’s dedication to an approach called Housing First. The policy states that homeless people’s first priority should be to find housing. After that, other issues such as drug addiction can be more easily resolved.
It also removes some barriers such as the sobriety requirement to provide housing.
“You don’t have to deal with your addiction on the street or in a shelter. Get housing first, then fix these issues,” Conderino said. “People are more likely to gain stability if they have consistency in their housing.”
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development adopted the policy in 2009, and it has been a priority in Connecticut for several years. Since the state set a goal to end chronic homelessness, Conderino said, she’s seen periods of homelessness decrease — sometimes from more than a decade to nearly a year.
“I’m confident we can end chronic homelessness here in Connecticut within the next year or two,” Rich said.
Typically, when homelessness experts talk about ending homelessness for a group, they mean they want to reach what’s called “functional zero.” This means that the system can quickly provide housing for anyone of a certain population – such as veterans – experiencing homelessness.
But Rich said he believes the state can end chronic homelessness within the next few years with some interventions and support.