After a decline, homelessness rises again across the Northwest Corner
Participants in the Northwest YMCA’s Freezin’ for a Reason fundraiser warm their hands on the open fire. 
Photo by Paul Venti

After a decline, homelessness rises again across the Northwest Corner

Part One: ‘A Public Health Emergency’

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

TORRINGTON — On a frigid day in early December, a newborn entered the world naked and homeless — but not hopeless.

Upon release from the hospital maternity ward, the infant’s young mother, abandoned by family, returned with her swaddled baby to the homeless shelter in Torrington where she had been staying while awaiting the child’s birth.

“We are currently housing eight children and a baby,” explained Deirdre DiCara, executive director of the nonprofit Friends in Service to Humanity of Northwest Connecticut Inc. (FISH), as she organized a bassinet in preparation for the shelter’s newest and youngest arrival.

While at FISH, infant and mother will receive health care and support services from local organizations aimed at placing them in permanent housing, said DiCara. “Hopefully, with time, she will reunite with her parents.”

A public health emergency

Homelessness in rural Northwest Connecticut, which has surged for the second year in a row after a decade of decline, far exceeds the number of beds available at the only two shelters serving the state’s rural Northwest Corner.

“It’s a public health emergency and a humanitarian crisis,” noted DiCara.

The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness has reported that homelessness jumped 39% statewide from 2020 to 2022, and as of fall 2023, had risen 13% over the prior year.

In the Northwest Corner, 30% of those experiencing homelessness are considered chronically homeless, meaning they had experienced homelessness four or more times in three years, according to The Plan to End Homelessness in Northwest CT, a comprehensive report prepared by the Northwest CT Community Foundation (NCCF) in collaboration with about 30 regional social service agencies.

The rural homeless are less visible than those in more urban areas, said service providers. They are camped out in dense woods, under bridges or living in cars, tents or structures unfit for human habitation.

51 beds for entire Northwest Corner

The dipping temperatures drive homeless people to seek a warm place to sleep, burdening local shelters.

“We have 51 shelter beds in Northwest Connecticut. There are 35 beds at FISH, five of which are dedicated to veterans funded by the Veterans Administration (VA), and 16 beds at the Y in Winsted. It’s a very rural region, and transportation is a big issue,” said Julia Scharnberg, vice president of community engagement for NCCF.

“Our shelters are constantly full. We are stuck with a real logjam,” she noted. “Every day that passes, the wait list is long enough to fill all 51 slots about twice.”

Scharnberg, who also serves on the board of The Housing Collective, said she has seen a rise in the number of unhoused seniors. “Many are on a fixed or low income and any increase in monthly expenses puts them at risk of homelessness.”

The lack of low-income housing in the Northwest Corner has reached a critical point, explained the FISH executive director. “I often say it’s about housing affordability, not affordable housing.”

Complicating matters, the planned mid-November opening of an emergency cold-weather shelter in downtown Torrington, known as Operation Overflow, has been delayed as service providers search for a suitable location. Several churches have offered space, but a group of parents objected to the shelter’s proximity to a nearby school.

‘A problem that touches everybody’

Rural homelessness, according to The Plan to End Homelessness in Rural Northwest Connecticut, has many of the same root causes as the more visible urban settings: the persistent lack of affordable housing, evictions, poverty, domestic violence, mental illness and the invisible injuries of combat.

The Northwest Corner towns, unlike larger cities, lack shelters to call their own. Except for assistance from municipal social services agents, the task of assisting and monitoring homelessness falls heavily on municipal, faith or business leaders, health care agencies, charitable institutions and volunteers.

“There is nothing here because our towns are so small. What has happened is an informal web of arrangements,” said state Rep. Maria Horn (D-64).

“They are often put up in a hotel, or transported to where there are services. There have been a lot of good intentions, but the processes seem to have gone astray,” said Horn. “People are forced to find their way to Torrington and Winsted, and we tend to think we don’t have a problem.”

Help starts with 2-1-1

New Beginnings of Northwest Hills Litchfield County is a regional service agency and sponsor of The Gathering Place, which implemented the 2-1-1 intake system in Litchfield County in 2014. It offers unhoused people in Northwest Connecticut “assistance and access to services to help individuals transition out of homelessness and into a new chapter of their lives,” according to director Nancy Cannavo.

Its Gathering Place offers visitors a safe place to receive their mail, take a shower, do laundry, get a haircut, speak to a provider one-on-one, make phone calls and obtain clothing for employment interviews. Visitors also receive mental health and substance abuse referrals and supported employment.

Cannavo, a psychiatric nurse at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital and coordinator of the Mental Health Services to the Homeless program, said that between January 2022 and November 2023, The Gathering Place saw 608 homeless clients.

“We are fully committed to caring for all people and ensuring that no one is left behind,” said Cannavo.

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