Climbing costs limit low-income housing

For many New Haven residents the chill of the fall air means pumpkins, falling leaves and the return of winter coats, but the change of seasons is a dramatically different experience for the growing number of New Haven’s homeless who may find themselves without shelter during the coldest months of the year.

Although more low-income housing has been made available in the past few years, factors such as rising fuel and home costs and the high costs of renting shelter in the Elm City are keeping many New Haven residents from finding adequate shelter, said Alison Cunningham, executive director of Columbus House, a New Haven organization that seeks to alleviate homelessness.

Cunningham said the overflow shelter was already full after one week of operation while Columbus House’s year-round shelter has been filled to capacity for more than a month.

“Last year and the year before we thought there was hope on the horizon,” she said. “Today sitting here I don’t share that same feeling.”

The price of renting shelter in New Haven currently remains prohibitively high, said David Tian, director of Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the fair market price for a studio in New Haven was $635 last year, while affordable monthly rent for a worker earning minimum wage at $7.10 per hour in Connecticut is only $369.

Although Theresa Silla, Livable City Initiative project manager, said the amount of non-profit housing construction has increased over the last three years from around 40 units two years ago to nearly 120 units this year, she said most of this housing is directed towards low-income potential home owners and is not specifically designed to decrease the homeless population.

Tian cited prohibitive housing expenses and rising fuel costs as the primary reasons that more residents may find themselves homeless this year.

“According to the self-reported needs section of the last ‘Homeless Count’ conducted in New Haven [2003], the top need was income assistance,” Tian said. “With the average cost of housing in New Haven so high, many people find it difficult to find suitable employment in order to afford housing.”

Cunningham said cumbersome leasing procedures pose an additional barrier to indigent residents acquiring homes.

“Private landlords are going to run credit checks and criminal background checks,” she said. “Many of our folks will not pass.”

She said federal Housing and Urban Development housing is unavailable to people with a felony background, further eliminating housing options for a significant portion of the at-risk population who often have past drug convictions.

One formerly homeless resident’s story provides an example of how high housing prices and addictions can lead an individual to a life on the street. A man who has been a fixture around the Yale campus for the last decade and who called himself Sam said he first became homeless after he failed to obtain Social Security or help from the Veteran’s Association to pay his rent.

He said he remained homeless in the New Haven area and located himself on York Street outside Toad’s Place for a few years while struggling with various addictions. He said he has been sober for the last nine years and now lives in West Haven.

More than 1,300 of New Haven’s residents are currently without a home, according to statistics released by the YHHAP, while approximately 4,000 are expected to experience homelessness at some point during the coming year.

Between two and three percent of America’s population will be homeless at some point during a five year period, according to the National Research Center for Homelessness and Mental Illness.

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