NEW BRITAIN – After spending months in an emergency shelter, Richard Simonides admitted that it has seemed like an eternity since he’s felt like a human being.
At 56, the life-long New Britain resident became homeless last fall after two nearly simultaneous family heartaches. His job had been caring for his sick mother who passed away. He was living at a house owned by his sister. But she also passed away, a second tragedy that left him living on the streets and more recently the Salvation Army.
“I’m looking for work, I’m looking for a place to call my own,” he said as he accepted a plate full of pasta at the weekly dinner for the homeless at First Lutheran Church. “I’m looking to be a human being again because right now I don’t feel like one.”
Recently released figures indicate he’s not alone.
Despite gains in housing chronically homeless individuals and families in 2016, the number of homeless individuals in New Britain and Bristol is still going up, according to preliminary figures gathered during the annual Point In Time count in January. Bristol reported that there were 25 sheltered and 22 unsheltered homeless individuals during the count which takes place statewide during the end of January when people are most likely to be in shelters and easily found. Twenty of the 22 unsheltered are from Bristol, service providers in that city said. The other two are from Southington. The total number represents an increase of 13 people since the 2017 count.
New Britain volunteers counted 156 people – including six people who identified as unsheltered. The number doesn’t include eight people in three families who are homeless and staying with Family Promise, a New Britain-based non-profit that houses people in congregations throughout the area. The number of homeless individuals counted in New Britain has not dropped since 2016 when 158 people were counted, down from 172 the year before.
The number of unsheltered individuals in both cities will likely change because the final figures are tabulated to consider population density and other factors. For instance, in 2016, New Britain volunteers counts six unsheltered people but the final number was pegged at 10 based on the population density of the areas where they were found.
Although 100 people in the Central Connecticut Coordinated Access Network were housed or matched with permanent supportive housing in 2016 as part of a statewide push to end chronic homelessness, area service providers are searching for an explanation as to why homelessness continues to go up in New Britain and Bristol. The CAN encompasses the two cities and Berlin, Southington and Plainville.
“It’s very disconcerting,” said Ellen Perkins Simpson, executive director of the Friendship Center in New Britain. “We have the least resources of any other CAN and we don’t have a lot of available housing.” But Perkins Simpson admitted she was surprised that the number of homeless individuals in the city was continuing to rise instead of drop. “We housed so many,” she said.
The numbers didn’t surprise Phillip Lysiak, the executive director of the St. Vincent DePaul shelter in Bristol. Lysiak contends that volunteers and staff have a better handle now on where homeless individuals hang out, so it’s easier to count more people than in years past. The other reality, he said, is that the shelters are getting filled back up with “high priority” people, who should have been housed as part of the 2016 push. “Our CAN has not really housed all the chronically homeless people,” Lysiak said. “There is more work to do.”
There are a number of ways that people who are experiencing homeless get housed with state and federal aid. Permanent supportive housing is provided to those who have been deemed chronically homeless. In order to receive that designation, a person must be homeless for a period of one year continuously or for four times in a three year span and they must have a mental health disability which could include substance abuse. In general, those who are chronically homeless are unable to work full-time due to their disability.
The housing vouchers provided by the state in 2016 to house roughly 100 people in the Central Connecticut CAN were considered permanent supportive housing. New vouchers for PSH are currently not available through state or federal funding. If a person placed in PSH dies or transitions out, to a nursing home for instance, the voucher for the housing can go to another chronically homeless individual. But otherwise there is no new permanent supportive housing until sometime next year when an 11-unit building at the corner of Erwin Place and North Street is opened by the Friendship Center.
There is roughly $350,000 for “rapid rehousing,” a program that helps people within the CAN immediately get into apartments by providing funding for items such as security deposits, rent and utilities for up to a year, Lysiak said.
But there is such a shortage of case managers, few people have been housed since September, Lysiak and CAN officials said. “Right now we don’t have the staff to spend that money,” said Jennifer Greer, a program director with Community Health Resources which administers rapid rehousing in the Central Connecticut CAN. Greer pointed out that shelter staff also work with clients to get them into housing and that one case manager is currently handling all the people who have been already housed with the program so there is no one to take on new clients.
Another factor is that the rapid rehousing money, which is supposed to go to people who are recently homeless but have a shot at regaining financial independence within a year, is instead going to those who are the most vulnerable – the chronically homeless, Greer said “Typically rapid rehousing is not for chronically homeless people but because resources are so limited, vulnerable people deemed chronic are the priority,” Greer said.
Statewide the number of people experiencing homelessness dropped 13 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to state officials. The official numbers generated from the PIT count will not be available until May. Bristol has experienced a roughly 45 percent decrease in homelessness since 2015 because their transitional housing program that housed 33 people closed with the money instead going to fund rapid rehousing.
At the same time, the number of homeless individuals in New Britain has remained nearly constant during the same time period.
It’s a fact that is wearing on Simonides who is just starting to come out of the depression and anxiety that he had fallen into as he entered homelessness. “It’s really scary,” he said. “I’ve filled out housing paperwork, I’ve talked to the mayor, I keep hearing that there’s a pathway coming which would take me out of homelessness but this is going so slow.”