A group of housing advocates and lawmakers made a plea for more money to help the homeless Friday, voicing fear that funding in the budget won’t be enough to shelter the homeless through the winter.
The problem is compounded by two factors: homelessness continues to rise in Connecticut, and shelters have been relying increasingly in COVID-related funds that will disappear this fiscal year.
“It’s on us, the people up here, to take more aggressive action and to put our dollars where our hearts and values are as a state,” said Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester, co-chair of the legislature’s Housing Committee.
The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness said homelessness is up 13% from this point last year, continuing a trend of rapid increases. CEH has previously said homeless 39% statewide from 2020 to 2022.
Advocates have said the spike is caused by an end to COVID-era moratoriums on evictions coupled with families losing their jobs during the pandemic, inflation and surging rents.
CCEH CEO Sarah Fox estimated there are 40 families and 500 individuals “sleeping outside” this week, and shelters are scrambling to help those people as the weather changes.
The coalition asked lawmakers to include $50 million in aid in the budget, funding Fox said would replace American Recovery Plan Act dollars.
“When we had the COVID-era funding, we were able to do better,” Fox said. “We were able to meet people’s needs, because those dollars matter.”
The Housing Committee unanimously agreed, but the final budget only provided $5 million for cold weather shelter programs.
It’s a figure lawmakers, advocates and even Deputy Housing Commissioner Brandan McGree agreed won’t be enough.
Lawmakers didn’t give specific examples, but indicated some of their colleagues just weren’t convinced the need is as severe.
“The excuse that of not in my town or the excuse that it’s not happening, it’s not true,” Rep. Jay Chase, R-Winchester, said.
He said the Northwest Corner of the state only has two shelters to serve 900 square miles. The loss of funding also limits the ability to provide transportation for people who need to get to those shelters.
Case said the issue with homeless shelters simply highlights a “cliff” that human service providers are going to face once ARPA dollars run out this fiscal year.
“We have not done enough to figure out the exit plan of the ARPA dollars and the federal dollars that we have,” Case, a ranking member of the Human Services Committee, said.
Other lawmakers agreed they have to do more to convince their colleagues to free up more funding.
“We have a winter to show that $5 million can do something, we need to show that it does something,” said Rep. Tony Scott, R-Monroe, a ranking member of the Housing Committee.
Case also put some of the blame on the Housing Department, saying the agency is taking too long to dole out the $5 million that has been approved.
He noted Torrington needs to rent space for its shelter and needs to do so in time for all the preparation work, including inspections, before the shelter can host people.
“Those dollars were appropriated, those dollars need to be released,” Case said.
McGee said the department wanted to consult with coordinated access networks about how to best use those funds, and the agency is working with the Office of Policy and Management to get the funding out.
“The money is on its way,” he said.
Luxenberg, meanwhile, said he’s working with the Housing Department to try and make housing vouchers more useful.
The Housing Committee noted earlier this year that reports indicate half the government-subsidized housing vouchers issued across the state since 2020 have not been used.
Luxenberg said the value of the vouchers aren’t keeping up with rental prices, especially in suburbs and wealthier communities.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets fair market rent and income limits for federal vouchers, and Connecticut does the same with its Rental Assistance Program.
The rental market cooled earlier this year, but a surge in prices over the summer pushed the median rent price nationwide to just $2 below last year’s record high, according to Redfin.
Renters lose their vouchers if they are unable to find a landlord to accept them.
Luxenberg said the state let housing authorities exceed limits during the pandemic and could do so again now, letting them go possibly as high as 20% or 25% above the listed amounts when renters are struggling to find units.
He acknowledged it’s a complicated decision because doing so also lowers the number of renters who can benefit from the programs.
“It’s a tight rope to balance to not be overpaying, and thus denying someone else the access to housing, versus underpaying and not being able to utilize the program,” Luxenberg said.
He said he’s working with the House Department to determine if, and by how much, the flexibility the state should give to local housing authorities.
He also said it’s not clear currently whether the Housing Department can make the policy change or whether that would require a vote by the legislature.