MERIDEN — Area homeless advocates are bracing for a winter filled with uncertainty, with the arrival of colder temperatures amid a still-surging pandemic.
A statewide moratorium on evictions, first enacted through executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont last spring, will continue until at least Jan. 1.
The moratorium has helped families who have lost income due to unemployment and reduced work hours during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates are also working to help landlords stay solvent and to help families impacted by lost income avoid accumulating massive debt for back-rent.
The pandemic has enabled some positive changes in homeless diversion programs, like the one overseen by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness and its regional Coordinated Action Network partners, like the Middlesex-Meriden-Wallingford CAN.
Roy Graham, a youth special projects coordinator for CCEH and longtime local advocate in Meriden, noted an improved no-show rate for people who schedule appointments with the agency and its partners. In previous years, about half of the individuals who scheduled appointments did not show up. This year, that no-show rate is closer to 30%, because caseworkers are able to meet with clients by phone, Graham said.
“Sometimes transportation can be a barrier,” Graham said, expressing a desire to continue the availability of telephone appointments after the pandemic has subsided.
“Something like that moving forward will allow us to reach more folks,” Graham said. “We will be able to help solve more of their housing stability challenges.”
Deanna Bencivengo, homeless outreach coordinator for the Meriden-based mental health authority Rushford, noted the pandemic has also yielded an outpouring of support. Individuals, businesses and banks have donated smaller items like face masks and larger items, like mattresses and furniture.
“Furniture can be difficult to find,” Bencivengo said.
The impact of the moratorium has been positive overall.
“It’s helped keep people in their home,” Bencivengo said. “But we’re all kind of biting our nails thinking about when the moratorium ends and what that might look like.”
A problem that will continue after the pandemic is a shortage of available housing for existing housing-insecure families. That problem, which Graham said has been “absolutely exacerbated by the pandemic,” will still need to be addressed.
With the coldest months ahead, the availability of warming shelters for homeless individuals will be a challenge. There are fewer spaces available. Meanwhile, advocates are hoping to secure funding to utilize other spaces, like motels.
“Back in March when the pandemic began, we saw the writing on the wall for people in congregate settings,” said Madeline Ravich, who directs the Be Homeful Project. “We mobilized to move half of the people who were in shelters, out of those shelters and in hotels.”
“Obviously there are still plenty of people in shelters. Obviously the challenges have been real,” Ravich said.
Bencivengo noted the more traditional shelters that are open have been operating at reduced capacity to comply with social distancing measures. In past years, churches and other buildings with large open rooms may have opened their doors to provide people warmth. Fewer of them will be able to open.
And those centers that will open “will have to be a bit more structured than normal warming centers,” Bencivengo said.
During the years before the pandemic, CCEH’s Be Homeful Project had seen growth, according to figures released by the coalition. In 2016, during the program’s first full year, 16 families in the Meriden-Wallingford area were diverted from homelessness. That number more than doubled the following year, and has grown since. In 2018, 133 families were diverted; in 2019, 242 families were diverted. Statewide, the program has grown from 912 families diverted in 2016, to 2,869 families diverted in 2019.
Last week, CCEH launched its fundraising campaign for the project, selling Paddington Bear stuffed animals as part of the effort. According to CCEH, donations of $25 funds the diversion program’s frontline efforts, with the stuffed animals given to young children whose families receive help. The program is also funded through a donation from the Connecticut Realtors Foundation.
In a written statement, foundation chair Sandy Maier Schede noted the importance of stable housing.
“Having a home is more important than ever now, and as REALTORS we are delighted to be giving people across Connecticut a way to join us in keeping local families safe at home during the pandemic,” Maier Schede said.
More information on the Be Homeful Project can be found on its website, Behomeful.org.