New Haven’s Homeless Advisory Commission convened Thursday evening to discuss the future of New Haven’s homeless population.
In its weekly meeting, the commission addressed flaws in New Haven’s current approach to helping the homeless and considered the steps it could take to effectively battle the problem of chronic homelessness, particularly among youth. One of the key areas of discussion was New Haven’s relationship with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which obligates state boards of education to work with city boards of education to identify and serve homeless children. According to John Huttner, chair of the city’s Homeless Advisory Commission and present at the meeting, the act requires that school staff be taught about rights provided to students under the McKinney Act and trained in identifying homeless students. After this process of identification, homeless children can be provided with services such as free transportation to and from school as well as permission to attend their school of origin, regardless of the district their family resides in. During the meeting, members of the commission also identified strategies to improve access to affordable housing and to end chronic homelessness.
“The McKinney Act ensures that homeless children have access to the same level of education as those who are not homeless,” Huttner said. “This includes free school lunches if they can’t afford it and full access to all courses and activities offered to mainstream students.”
While the act was met with enthusiasm when it was set forth in 1987, the number of homeless children being identified by Elm City school staff has dwindled greatly in the past couple of years. Huttner pointed out that rather than the falling number being a function of a decreasing homeless population, it is a consequence of the city’s current failure to adhere to the McKinney Act. Huttner said this is partly due to the termination of the state’s homeless-coordinator position, a role mandated by the act to ensure the creation of policies that give homeless children access to public schooling. The position was terminated about two years ago, Huttner said, and local schools have since adopted a more lax approach toward educating staff in line with the act. He added that a lack of funding means that local school boards are often unable to provide services to students they identify as homeless.
The meeting also addressed the issue of providing the homeless with permanent housing. Carmen Brown, shelter director for New Reach — a nonprofit agency that shelters homeless families — spoke about the difficulty New Haven residents face when looking for affordable housing.
“In New Haven, it’s really difficult to find affordable housing,” Brown told the News. “Apartments that are being built right now are pretty much luxury apartments, and they’re very expensive.”
In the meeting, Brown talked about a project called “Zero: 2016,” which aims to create a system that houses homeless individuals within 30 days. Through coordination between local nonprofits and housing providers, the project aims to end chronic homelessness in the Elm City by the end of 2016.
Jesse’s Homeless Outreach Project founder Jesse Hardy, a self-described “man of action” and a strong advocate for a hands-on approach to countering homelessness, also attended Thursday’s meeting. His initiative regularly organizes drives and fundraisers to provide food, clothing and shelter to New Haven’s homeless population.
“We’re the ones that organized free haircuts for the homeless on the New Haven Green,” Hardy said, describing his 2013 outreach project.
Hardy advocated for providing affordable housing to the homeless, arguing that doing so would cost the taxpayers less in the long run because the city could avoid other costs associated with supporting a growing homeless population, such as medical expenses.
“I say give them apartments. It’s going to be cheaper for the taxpayers. Say if you give somebody an apartment, its going to cost about $13,000 to $14,000 a year,” Hardy said. “But can you imagine the cost of putting someone in prison, or paying for them when they’re in hospital? That would cost $20,000 or at least $30,000 a year.”
Hardy said he plans to hold an event in April called Operation Love Affair, during which he will provide the homeless with “a bunch of spring clothing, summer clothing and good food.”