Advocates buoyed by new state initiative to end homelessness

Boy Scouts constructed shelters out of cardboard boxes during a Dec. 8 sleep-out on the Winsted Green to raise awareness of homelessness in the Northwest Corner.

Paul Venti

Advocates buoyed by new state initiative to end homelessness

Advocates who provide services to a growing number of unhoused people throughout the rural Northwest Corner and state are applauding Gov. Ned Lamont’s establishment last week of a new interagency council tasked with tackling the problem of homelessness.

The panel, consisting of leaders of multiple state agencies, will be known as the Connecticut Interagency Council on Homelessness and will be responsible for strengthening the state’s homeless prevention and response efforts.

Chronic underfunding and bureaucratic obstacles to services have hampered past efforts by community agencies in caring for the unhoused, problems that advocates said will hopefully be addressed.

“The program has a lot of promise,” said Julia Scharnberg, vice president of community engagement for the Northwest CT Community Foundation (NCCF). Scharnberg manages the foundation’s grant-making process and is an active participant in regionwide issues including homelessness.

“It’s something that has been expressed by others in the homelessness sector, that it would be so helpful if we had something like that,” she noted.

The council will consist of leaders of state agencies that are responsible for housing and intervention support services. According to a press release issued by Lamont, it will build upon existing efforts already undertaken by several state agencies, including the departments of housing, social services and mental health and addiction services.

The governor is tasking the new group with focusing its work on three main goals, including strengthening current programs, improving the effectiveness of the homelessness response system, and meeting the demands of housing.

The council will collaborate on maximizing the use of funding for housing assistance, increasing the supply of permanent supportive housing, improving the effectiveness of rapid rehousing, and evaluating and finding solutions for expanded access to safe and affordable housing for all with an interagency approach of tailoring support to each individual’s needs.

Lamont has appointed Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno to serve as the council’s chairperson, and leaders from the following offices will serve as members: Department of Housing, Department of Aging and Disability Services, Department of Children and Families, Department of Correction, Department of Labor, Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Department of Social Services, Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Police and Management, Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch, and the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.

Additionally, representatives of several state offices will serve as ad hoc members. Those include the Department of Developmental Services, Department of Economic and Community Development, Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, and the Department of Public Health.

Also, the state Department of Education, Department of Transportation, and Department of Higher Education.

“Everyone should have access to a safe, warm place to call home,” said Lamont in making the announcement.

“State and local governments, along with our nonprofit partners, need the resources available to them to ensure that fewer people face the possibility of becoming homeless,” said the governor.

“Between building new housing units, addressing mental health issues, improving access to education and health care, and increasing job support, this issue must be addressed in a holistic manner.”

Scharnberg said the goal is to “try to wrap people around a team that best serves their needs.” For example, she said, the chronic homeless are likely to need “very long-term services, versus a hiccup in someone’s life who just needs a light touch to get back on track.”

Sarah Fox, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness (CCEH), said the establishment of the interagency council will help “weave together our resources.” The Northwest Corner, she said, has experienced a “lack of consistent funding” in terms of homelessness response efforts, yet it encompasses a vast geographical area.

“I don’t think fairness comes into play when talking about homelessness,” said Fox, who experienced homelessness as a child.

She said there needs to be a “shared understanding” of the problem so that municipalities and small towns can better coordinate strategies to be part of the solution, and so that the financial burden doesn’t fall on just a few understaffed and overburdened regional agencies.

Deirdre DiCara, executive director of the FISH (Friends in Service of Humanity) homeless shelter that serves Northwest Connecticut, explained that several unhoused individuals from the more rural communities are currently living at the shelter.

“I am short-staffed right now,” she said. State funding only covers about half of her nonprofit agency’s annual operating costs, “and the other half comes from fundraising.

Where is the support from the community?

“The recent $250,000 received from the state for our Northwest Corner, that’s paying to have a temporary overflow shelter open for four to five months,” DiCara explained.

Regardless, she said she is buoyed by the news of the renewed effort to solve homelessness. “It’s a wonderful thing, really. We’re very pleased.”

The FISH executive director said the recent media coverage of the homelessness problem in rural Northwest Connecticut by The Lakeville Journal and other local and state newspapers in recent weeks has helped to shed light on the homelessness crisis and likely put pressure on the state to take action.

While optimistic about the new interagency council’s appointment, Scharnberg cautioned that efficiency will be the key to its success:

“I don’t want it to be just about the red tape. We don’t need another study. This has been studied to death. What we need is staffing, funding, flexibility and resources behind the effort. That’s my hope.”

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