One of several tents within a homeless encampment next to I-84 in Hartford on Tuesday, March 20, 2021 (Doug Hardy / CTNewsJunkie) Credit: Doug Hardy / CTNewsJunkie

The expanding needs of the state’s homeless population put a special strain on a rarely discussed group of frontline workers, some of whom barely make ends meet themselves, officials told the Appropriations Committee in support of legislation to ensure adequate funding for homelessness and housing assistance services.

In an interview this week following the public hearing on Friday, Sarah Fox, director of policy at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, described these frontline workers as generally, “people of color who are making at or below minimum wage and who may have seen a raise in their pay during the pandemic, but now they are back down to wages where they are as close as anybody to being homeless themselves.” 

Throughout the pandemic, it was clear that the group’s services are a critical part of the state’s emergency response system, she said, yet these services have been historically underfunded.

“We liken it to a system put together with scotch tape and bubble gum,” Fox said. A good portion of the funds to keep the doors open end up coming from donors, she added.

CCEH estimates that more than 4,500 people are homeless on any given night in Connecticut; nearly 1 in 5 are children.

Margaret Middleton, CEO of Columbus House in New Haven, said that her agency used federal Paycheck Protection Program funding to provide hazard pay to frontline workers, but the PPP funds only run through June. 

“That makes a huge difference,” Middleton said of the funding. “Otherwise I literally don’t know how we would have staffed emergency housing this year. So we are facing this potential staffing crisis where someone who has been making $19 an hour will be back to their base rate of pay of $13 an hour, and I am not sure how that is going to work.”

Both Middleton and Fox urged the committee to support SB 340, which includes paying living wages and hazard pay to the individuals who manage shelters, work with clients and assure on-site safety. The employees routinely handle the intake and exit of people from shelters, logistics and even emotional support. 

“It’s an incredibly hard job, period, and a hard job to do for minimum wage,” Middleton said. 

Middleton said the recent federal funding provided a glimpse of what services could look like if they were fully funded. As an example, she pointed to a warming center at the Wesley Inn that opened over the winter. Instead of in a church basement where people looking for shelter had to find a spot on the floor or a chair, clients had their own room and bathroom and the organization was able to staff the facility.”

Sara Wilson, director of development and communications at Journey Home in Hartford, said the mission of agencies like hers goes beyond handing out blankets and food, to working with their clients to solve problems, which takes engagement and building trust. 

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“Now we are really focused on creative problem solving, finding any resources you could tap into,” Wilson said. 

The state Department of Housing provides around $13 million annually for shelter operations, which funds 33 agencies to operate 39 shelters across the state, according to state officials. 

Steve DiLella, director of Individual and Family Support Programs at DOH, said federal funding has helped with items such as paying for hotels people to stay in. 

DiLella said the state has a good understanding of the issues facing the homeless. According to the Partnership for Strong Communities, a policy advocacy organization, the number of people using the state’s shelter system has decreased by 57% since 2012. 

“We are still trying to figure out the effect that COVID has had on the overall homeless numbers,” DiLella said, adding that assessing that impact could take a couple years. The state will have to continue to monitor what happens after the state’s moratorium on evictions ends in May, and the federal moratorium ends on June 30.

“Certainly from this point in time, we feel comfortable with the homeless number being really stable,” DiLella said. He added that the state worked to provide COVID vaccinations to homeless people staying in shelters and the hotels, and will be working on getting vaccinations to those who are not sheltered via popup clinics and trailers. 

Another tents among several within a homeless encampment next to I-84 in Hartford on Tuesday, March 20, 2021 (Doug Hardy / CTNewsJunkie) Credit: Doug Hardy / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut is also administering the $235 million UniteCT Program, which will provide rental and utility payment assistance to households financially impacted by the pandemic, which will hopefully prevent them from entering the homeless system, DiLella said. 

In the meantime, nonprofits are relying on helping themselves through their own fundraising to make their budgets whole. 

Wilson said her organization raised $128,000 from a virtual fundraiser last week. While that’s less than the $200,000 raised last year, there was less corporate support but more individuals contributing. 

“I have found that individuals have stepped up more during the pandemic,” Wilson said. She recalled that last year, she asked supporters for quarters for the laundry machines at the hotels people were sheltered. She ended up with $5,000 in donations of quarters. 

Jennifer Paradis, executive director of Beth-El Center, Inc. in Milford, knows the need for assistance is higher. Beth-El served 35,000 meals in 2020, about a 40% increase over the previous year. She added that Beth-El served 261 individuals and families in the emergency shelter program, a 100% increase from the year before. 

“Certainly our costs have grown in many areas, and the community in Milford has been very supportive and very generous and we are incredibly lucky,” Paradis said, adding, however, that Beth El can’t rely on fundraising to run their programs. 

“It’s a matter of state government and municipalities responding to their needs appropriately,” Paradis said.