Coalition of advocates, kindness of neighbors give hope to the homeless

Citing a “pending humanitarian crisis,” state and local advocates for the homeless in Northwest Connecticut gathered Nov. 10 to discuss homelessness response programs to support urgent funding for cold weather emergency winter shelters and to address chronic underfunding of the frontline for nonprofit shelters and response programs.

Photo contributed

Coalition of advocates, kindness of neighbors give hope to the homeless

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series exploring homelessness in rural Northwest Connecticut. Click here to read part one.

Ten years ago this month, the Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation (NCCF) joined forces with New Beginnings of Northwest Hills Litchfield County, a collaborative of several dozen local and regional social service agencies, in announcing a comprehensive plan to end homelessness.

Since then, the plan has served as a roadmap for aligning housing and an array of services spread out across a vast rural Northwest Corner.

Fast forward to 2023, and after eight consecutive years of decline, the number of unhoused people is surging, fueled by inflation, increased evictions, soaring housing costs and a lack of housing overall.

“Homeless work has changed dramatically in the ensuing years,” said Julia Scharnberg, vice president of community engagement for NCCF and lead researcher and writer for “The Plan to End Homeless in Northwest Connecticut.”

“When we first put together this working group, it really brought together a remarkable cross-sector collaboration of organizations,” she explained.

“Working together, we came to the understanding that homelessness is a rather holistic problem and that housing is the foundation to having a stable situation,” enabling people to focus on the rest of their problems, like mental illness, domestic violence, job loss or reentry into society after release from an addiction treatment facility, noted Scharnberg.

“Back in 2013 there wasn’t a coordinated approach…it was very bureaucratic. People had to go to a whole bunch of different agencies.”

But within one year, the state was divided into coordinated access networks (CANS) of which there are currently seven. “We are part of the Northwest CAN covering from the Massachusetts border to Waterbury,” Scharnberg explained.

“We are very blessed here in Northwest Connecticut. We have a wonderful nonprofit community of people calling each other, trading information back and forth, and making teams around people.”

A new lease on life for homeless veteran

Pete Rourke, 61, is shown here at the flagpole recently dedicated to veterans outside the FISH NWCT shelter, where he has been staying since Sept. 20. With the help of a network of social services, Rourke, an Air Force veteran, recently signed a lease for a studio apartment.Photo by Debra A. Aleksinas

Click here to read more.

A call to action

With winter looming and anticipating a “pending humanitarian crisis,” due to shortage of shelter space and funding, a coalition of service providers sent out a call to action in late fall.

State and local advocates for the homeless in Northwest Connecticut gathered Nov. 10 at the Torrington Library to discuss homelessness response programs to support urgent funding for cold weather emergency winter shelters and to address chronic underfunding of the front line for nonprofit shelters and response programs.

Panelists for the roundtable included Jessica Gueniat, Torrington Library director; Nancy Cannavo, president of The Gathering Place; State Rep. Jay Case (R-63); Sarah Fox, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness; Deirdre DiCara, executive director of FISH NWCT; and Leonardo Ghio, project director with the Northwest Hills Council of Governments.

At the time of the roundtable, funds earmarked for the Northwest CAN for 2023 were delayed, as was the opening of an emergency overflow shelter, compounding the urgency for action.

Gov. Ned Lamont and the congressional delegation announced earlier this year that the state is receiving an $18 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address homelessness among people in unsheltered settings and in rural communities, and the funds, directed at homeless outreach services, access points to homeless services and permanent supportive housing, will be distributed over the next three years.

“Stable housing is not only critical for the development of safe communities, but it is a moral imperative,” said Lamont.

In her testimony before the Connecticut General Assembly’s Housing Committee in support of Raised House Bills No. 6554, “An Act Appropriating Fund for Certain Homeless Response Programs,” and Senate Bill NO. 909, “An Act Establishing a Right to Housing,” Fox said the pandemic and the increase in homelessness in the state has surged 39% over last year.

It takes a village

Reliable and consistent funding is essential, said advocates for the homeless, but so, too, is community involvement. Behind the scenes, friends and neighbors, too many to name, from throughout the Northwest Corner are the unsung heroes.

There is the couple who moved out of the area last year but return every week with two bags full of groceries for the homeless shelter; the volunteer who spent two and a half years keeping shelter residents COVID-19-free during the pandemic; the clergyman who unlocked the back door of the chapel on cold nights to give the unhoused a place to sleep; the many local businesses who pitch in to help with shelter repairs or supplies.

In the rural Northwest Corner towns where there are no dedicated shelters, social services agents shoulder the burden of identifying and assisting the unhoused or those who are at risk of homelessness.

“I have one client who is homeless and has been for quite a while,” said Malia Hill, Sharon’s Social Services director, who noted that the individual was frightened when seeking services in Torrington, as he didn’t feel safe there being among people with mental health issues.

“He feels this is a safer place here and he doesn’t want to live in cities. It’s his best option,” said Hill.

As DiCara noted, “No one is stereotypical in their story.”

Individuals, businesses and organizations from throughout the Northwest Corner donated warm-weather clothing to a recent coat drive for the homeless and low-income families, which drew about 600 people who arrived two hours before the giveaway and stretched around the corner for several hours, said shelter officials.Photo contributed

Where to find assistance and how you can help

2-1-1 United Way Help Line: If you or someone you know is experiencing a housing crisis, call the United Way Help Line at 2-1-1 to schedule an intake.

Winsted YMCA Emergency Shelter, 480 Main St., Winsted: 860-379-0708

FISH/Friends in Service to Humanity of Northwestern Connecticut, Inc., 332 South Main St., Torrington: 860-496-1648

New Beginnings of Northwest Hills Litchfield County/The Gathering Place, 21 Prospect St., Suite A, Torrington: 860-618-3455

New Beginnings is the sponsoring organization of The Gathering Place, a drop-in center for the homeless. The Gathering Place serves as the local point of entry for all homeless, serving all 26 towns in Litchfield County

To volunteer or make a donation: Contact the social services agent in your community, or either of the nonprofit agencies above, to find out how to donate services, clothing, food or gas cards or your time as a volunteer.

— Compiled by Debra A. Aleksinas

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