Homeless shelters and support services in Connecticut are bracing for a wave of evictions and increasing poverty as pandemic unemployment benefits and rent forgiveness expire.
“It’s sort of terrifying how bad this could be,” said Cathy Zall from the New London Homeless Hospitality Center. “I think it is very, very frightening but the two truths about it is that we can have some capacity in our shelters but because of COVID-19 we have a lot less space in shelters than we used to.”
Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order extended rent forgiveness until August 25, and the federal government has not solved the ongoing economic crisis accompanying the public health crisis. Homeless shelters, previously a refuge for those without a safe place to sleep, are now a concern for spread of the coronavirus. As the potential for massive evictions grows nearer, advocates for the homeless like Zall are growing concerned.
In the past, the New London shelter would allow people to sleep on the floor on mats particularly crowded times, but today, those modifications are no longer possible.
Steve DiLella, director of individual and family support programs with the Department of Housing said that he is building up the existing homeless support programs the state has in place but the extent of the need is unclear.
“I think we are all concerned,” DiLella said. “But we just don’t know what the future holds at this point.”
The $600 additional Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefit expired on July 24, which is recent enough that DiLella said the DOH hasn’t seen any increased housing need as a result yet.
“It does take some time for the whole process to work,” DiLella said. “If someone doesn’t pay the rent, there has to be a notice to quit, and then they have to work their way through the judicial system. That could take a few months and obviously there’s always hopes that the folks in Washington will be able to come up with some second round of relief.”
Organizations are working collaboratively with the DOH to address the crisis before it arrives. The United Way of Greater New Haven and the state are implementing Community Development Block Grants for small cities to connect homeless people to resources as well as connecting those who have housing insecurity with eviction prevention resources.
“With the support of DOH and the City of New Haven, we have raised resources to house over 170 households out of shelter and the streets to ensure their safety and the homeless system’s ability to respond to increased need for emergency shelter,” said Kelly Fitzgerald of the United Way of New Haven.
Zall said that in New London she is taking a similar approach. While housing and shelter are important, because of the need for social distancing she has pivoted toward rehousing people and keeping them out of the shelters.
“We’re helping people keep their housing, which we call diversion,” Zall said. “If people do lose their housing we try to have resources available to help them to find new housing as quickly as possible.”
This rehousing program was in place prior to COVID-19, but increased need is behind building it up, Zall said. Those experiencing homelessness can call 211 and speak to someone from the homeless response system.
“We have some resources,” Zall said. “Will that be enough? I don’t know. To pay back rent, they can go stay with their mom in the room over the garage, roommate with someone. Each situation is different.”
Zall said over 80% of the calls are resolved by diversion, and hopes this will continue even with a potential eviction crisis.
The state received $10 million from the CARES Act to prevent homelessness and build up homeless prevention programs.
“I doubt it will be enough,” Zall said. “But it’s a substantial amount of money. I am just hopeful we can help people rehouse as quickly as we possibly can.”
DiLella said the state is committed to ensuring that people remain permanently housed, despite the unprecedented crisis.
“We have long been believers that permanent housing greatly reduces negative impacts on individuals,” DiLella said. “We know when people have their own apartment they are less likely to have mental health or substance abuse issues. We are committed to doing this.”