Advocates in the fight against homelessness jumped into action in March when they realized how COVID-19 could easily spread through Connecticut’s homeless shelters.
Now the temporary housing for those facing housing insecurity is set to expire at the end of this month, leaving advocates concerned.
Kelly Fitzgerald, director of the Coordinated Access Network for the United Way of Greater New Haven, said they realized that shelters were not spaces where people could safely distance so they started working together to find a solution.
Fitzgerald's organization partnered with the Connecticut Department of Housing, shelters and other organizations involved in the fight against homelessness and entered into an agreement with 15 hotels to house the homeless population.
Those hotel contracts expire on June 30.
“This is a public health emergency,” Fitzgerald says. “This is one of the states most vulnerable populations and we need to do what we need to do in order to keep them safe.”
While they tried to find more permanent housing for the homeless population from the start there were still about 1,000 people who ended up in hotels across the state.
“There wasn’t any natural next available space for people to go. We didn’t have empty shelters sitting around and that’s when we went to our state partners,” Fitzgerald said.
The goal is to find 1,000 people permanent housing in the next 120 days. With the help of the reaching home campaign they’re hoping to house 250 people experiencing homelessness in June, followed by 400 in July and 350 in August with any additional necessary work being done in september.
Kiley Gosselin, executive director of the Partnership for Strong Communities, said they wanted to use this moment to find more permanent homes for these individuals and redesign the shelters to make them safer in the future.
“Shelters are inherently not a great place to be in the middle of a pandemic,” Gosselin said. “They tend to be crowded. Folks are in close proximity and a lot of the folks experiencing homelessness have other conditions that make them higher risk for contracting a virus anyway. And they also tend to skew older.”
The additional money from the federal government and the rental subsidies will help these individuals find more permanent housing.
“Some of the hurdles in identifying housing right now have more to do with the logistics of you know folks getting access to vital documents,” Gosselin said. “Getting access to things like notaries and other things that are necessary to get paperwork in place, as well as touring units and just the logistics of cleaning, and move in and move out. But as things start to open and ease up a little bit we have a real moment in time here to make some magic happen.”
Steve Dilella, director of the individual and family support program unit at the Department of Housing, said they’ve done a good job of preventing any outbreaks.
”I think our efforts have really borne fruition when you look at the numbers, we’ve really had a minimal amount of homeless individuals test positive for coronavirus and COVID,” Dillela said.
He said one of the hotels in the Hartford region tested more than 150 individuals and all of them were negative. He said only a handful of homeless have tested positive.
“As long as the social distancing is in effect going back to the congregate setting shelters as they were before just is not yet a safe option for the clients or the staff,” Fitzgerald said.
She said they have seen the number of those using hotels going down, but there are still people entering the shelter system who need to be housed.
Shelters will not be able to be filled to the same capacity they’ve been filled in the past.
Department of Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno said housing 1,000 individuals is a coordinated effort, which they will support with funding.
“They actually already have started moving people out of the hotels,” Mosquera-Bruno said. “Because we provided some rapid rehousing assistance and also assistance for the initial couple of months of rent. So they started actually last month moving families and individuals.”
Many see this as an opportunity.
“We didn’t have a roadmap at the beginning. We don’t have a roadmap now. We don’t have a vaccine. We’re still working with the same challenges we were working with before and the idea is to make sure that we delay the spread of the virus if we can prevent it at all,” Mosquera-Bruno says.