The stringent welfare deadlines touted by politicians five years ago are here. And for hundreds of the neediest families in New Haven — like 28-year-old Glenda Villot and her four children — time is running out.
Every month, Villot receives $543 in welfare and $155 in child support. When she and her husband moved from Miami to New Haven in 1998, she was five months pregnant. Villot said her husband told her to take it easy, and so she stayed at home to raise her children, four boys, now ages 2, 3, 5 and 9.
Villot’s husband was working then, but now she is on her own. Her husband has been in jail on drug possession charges since this past February, Villot said. One month after he left, Villot received a letter from the state informing her that her welfare checks would stop coming in October, giving her seven months to find a job.
Her search for employment has taken her everywhere: the Omni hotel, factories and the library computers. Yet, Villot said, she remains jobless.
“I’m out there looking and looking and looking for jobs, and I just keep getting turned down,” Villot said. “I need something, I need something, and they keep saying no, no, no.”
Six years ago, Connecticut set a national trend with its welfare reform, which came one year ahead of federal legislation. In the first wave of welfare roll cuts in October, 320 families in New Haven were dropped. The Department of Social Services estimates that an additional 690 families will lose their benefits before the end of the year.
Since the beginning of Connecticut welfare reform, the welfare rolls have been cut by more than half, from 58,000 to 25,000. But many of those still receiving checks have others relying on them — the average family losing benefits has three children.
“When you think about it, it’s monumental,” said a source who works with locals in need. “At this point, it’s not as if these people can take care of themselves and their kids.”
Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland entered office five years ago with a 10-point plan for welfare reform called “Turning Welfare Rolls Into Payrolls.” The program that emerged then was Jobs First, which had a 21-month limit but a generous allowance of up to six extensions, each six months long.
In 1996, Congress passed national welfare reform legislation in which states receive federal block grants under one main stipulation: no welfare recipient can receive federal funds for more than 60 months.
This summer, the state legislature changed the welfare reform law, tightening restrictions so that only three benefit extensions, not six, are allowed.
Such extensions are possible in three scenarios: for victims of domestic violence; adults who work 35 hours or more a week but still earn less than their cash benefits through welfare; or adults who work less than 35 hours a week because of a disability or having to care for a disabled relative.
While many families can still receive extensions, the DSS estimates that one-fourth of all families scheduled to be dropped will not get them.
Villot’s welfare checks were scheduled to stop in October, but for reasons she does not understand they have now been extended until January.
“God just wasn’t ready for her to be put to the wolves yet,” said Keith Young, an assistant parent involvement coordinator in the New Haven Board of Education’s Head Start program. Young met Villot through the Head Start center attended by one of her sons.
Villot is now living with her children in a third-floor apartment at 96 Chapel St. in Fair Haven, which Young called a “hellhole with a slum landlord.” Roaches and mice crawl across the dilapidated apartment floor, and one of her sons found a syringe in a hole in the apartment walls, Villot said.
“I feel disgusting — I don’t eat,” Villot said, adding that she weighs about 90 pounds now.
There is enough food to go around for now, but her anxiety drains her. Villot said her nerves make her hands shake as she writes, and she cries easily.
“I just keep thinking and thinking and thinking, and it just keeps building up in my head,” Villot said. “I worry about a lot of things. I worry about my kids getting older, getting into drugs.”
Villot said she does not know what will become of her life on Jan. 3 when the checks stop coming. She understands that leaving the welfare rolls is the ultimate goal, but she wants more time.
“Please make sure I’m stable, situated, with a good job,” Villot said. “Then you can cut me off.”