HARTFORD — Emergency shelters in Connecticut have always been a last resort, the only escape for some from spending a night or two on the street. But as the demand for shelter space this year soars to a record high and affordable housing remains scarce, overnight stays are stretching into six-month, nine-month and even yearlong residencies.
In a public hearing held by the state Select Committee on Housing yesterday, homelessness activists, housing experts and the homeless themselves stepped before legislators to plead for housing reforms and more funding for city shelters. Several bills aimed toward easing the state’s housing crunch are currently being considered in the state Legislature.
“This problem is real, very real,” Kathleen Martinez said at the hearing. “I live it every day.”
Martinez, 36, has been staying in a Bridgeport shelter for six months now, and delivered a desperate plea to the state legislators for fair housing reforms. She said she faces discrimination in her hunt for affordable housing because she uses Section 8 vouchers.
Section 8 is a federal program in which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development makes direct payments to landlords on behalf of qualified tenants. The intent of Section 8 was to give people the freedom to use their vouchers anywhere and avoid having to live in public housing. But at the public hearing, some described landlords as wary of tenants who used Section 8 vouchers because the landlords claimed the government was often late with payments and that property inspections were too rigorous.
Martinez said these excuses were a front for landlords wanting to justify their unfair rejections of poor people looking for housing.
“I say, ‘Please, work with me.’ This is so unbelievably hard,” said Martinez, who is married with two children. “I also have to face the reality every day and every month that I may have to go on the street with two small children.”
In New Haven, workers at Columbus House, a shelter that can house 52 a night, said the occupancy rate there has increased 20 percent in the last four years. And across the state, there has been a 53 percent increase in the number of people turned away from shelters, Columbus House Executive Director Alison Cunningham said.
A proposed bill in the state Legislature would hand $200,000 in grant funding to the Connecticut Fair Housing Center to enforce fair housing. If passed, it would take effect this fiscal year starting July 1.
Robert Solomon, interim executive director of the New Haven Housing Authority and a professor at Yale Law School, testified yesterday on the need to demolish obsolete public housing to make room for mixed-income developments. State legislators questioned the displacement of the poor to build new homes, but Solomon said the integration of public housing into communities was a necessary step toward rebuilding neighborhoods.
The state Legislature is examining another bill that would provide funding to rebuild old public housing units into mixed-income neighborhoods.
Mary McAtee, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, outlined the statewide housing crisis at the hearing. She said that though shelters needed more funding, the problem of homelessness required deeper reforms.
“The state has not stepped up to the plate for affordable housing and support services,” she said.
McAtee added that the low staffing and funding of emergency shelters did not reflect the number of homeless who are increasingly staying longer. She exhorted the Legislature to look at the revenue side of the budget instead of cutting social service programs to balance the budget.
“Our goal was never to close down the shelters,” McAtee said. “Our goal was to end homelessness.”