New housing will help Elm City’s mentally ill

A Connecticut organization is aiming to transform what is currently just another eyesore on New Haven’s urban landscape into a haven for one of the city’s most vulnerable populations.

Continuum of Care Inc., a New Haven nonprofit agency that provides residential services for the developmentally disabled, plans to break ground this spring on apartment units that will house 14 low-income residents. The organization’s project, funded by the federal government, is part of a larger “Ten-Year Plan” to eliminate chronic homelessness in New Haven by 2015.

The 14 housing units will provide affordable housing to low-income, disabled individuals. In addition, the residents will have access to supportive services for their disabilities. Continuum administrators said pairing low-income housing with supportive services is essential to insuring the residents’ success.

Jim Farrales, vice president of program services at Continuum, said the lack of support services for drug addiction and mental disabilities at traditional public housing units is self-defeating because residents are often evicted from residential programs ostensibly meant to help them.

“The difference with supportive housing is it provides the support services necessary to help people not be evicted or lose their housing,” he said.

Continuum will begin construction on a rundown apartment building at 34-40 Batter Terrace this spring. The organization bought the property last year from private owners and began making modest improvements such as new lighting and landscaping. A $1.3 million grant received last year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 811 will cover the costs of acquisition and renovation.

Patti Walker, president and CEO of Continuum, said the organization received all the money it asked for from the federal government but plans to do some additional fundraising to cover the rest of the costs of renovation.

“We’re guessing that we’ll probably have to come up with additional funds of $700,000 to $900,000,” she said.

Walker said the organization has already identified some individuals they think will be well-suited to living in the apartments. Although the funds Continuum received from the government only cover the costs of preparing the apartment building and not the support services residents will need, Walker said, once all 14 residents have been chosen, funding for their support services will be provided by the Department of Mental Retardation.

Continuum began 40 years ago in 1967 as the New Haven Halfway House and primarily aimed to provide transitional residential programs for the city’s homeless population. Since then, and especially over the past 25 years, Walker said, the organization has expanded to offer a range of residential services for people with mental illnesses. It was this goal of providing a “continuum” of offerings that inspired a change in the organization’s name in 1981.

Jim Farrales, vice president of program services at Continuum, said that because New Haven’s 10-Year Plan was only adopted this past October, it is too early to see results. But city officials said concrete steps have been taken to reach the plan’s goals. John Huettner, special projects director of the community services administration of New Haven, said Continuum’s plans for Batter Terrace are a crucial part of the plan.

“One of the priorities ultimately [of the plan] is supportive housing,” he said. “It’s like a piece of the mosaic.”

The plan was announced and developed by the New Haven Homeless Advisory Commission, which was established in 1999 to make recommendations for solutions to the problem of homelessness. Similar plans have been implemented with varying degrees of success in hundreds of cities around the country since 2000.

Huettner said in addition to Continuum’s 14 units at Batter Terrace, the commission is in the process of identifying and adding 140 other low-cost supportive housing units. Other goals of the commission include more employment opportunities and programs to prevent behavior that may lead to chronic homelessness, he said.

Though many agreed that Connecticut is far ahead of its peers in the level of support it provides for its homeless population, some said the state poses certain barriers to finding affordable housing.

Robert Rosenheck, professor of psychiatry and public health at the School of Medicine, said Connecticut is relatively progressive in its care for the mentally disabled.

“In some places it’s quite good and in some places there isn’t enough of it,” he said. “Connecticut is one of the states that has led in the development of recovery-oriented centers.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides a “report card” for the 50 states based on their treatment of the mentally ill, Connecticut received a “B” grade and ranked second in the nation in per-capita mental health spending.

But Farrales said the high cost of housing in Connecticut makes providing low-income housing increasingly difficult.

“Connecticut is such an expensive state to live in that the cost of housing is so exorbitant,” he said. “Finding affordable housing just becomes very difficult for someone who’s disabled.”

Next Tuesday, Jan. 30, 75 volunteers will canvass New Haven for a first-of-its-kind homeless count. The count will be unique because it will be part of a synchronized, standardized statewide count going on in all of Connecticut’s towns and cities at precisely the same time. According to last year’s count, New Haven has an estimated 1,177 people identified as homeless.

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