Courtesy of Madeline Ravich

This holiday season, about 1,000 children living in 50 homeless shelters across the state received Paddington-bear themed gifts through the “Be Homeful” Project at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

The project — which raises money for a statewide emergency fund that provides resources to housing-insecure families — raised over $75,000 during the 2018 holiday campaign. Throughout the campaign, local schools, churches and businesses held Paddington bear drives, where donors could buy gifts for children living in shelters. The gifts are underwritten by sponsors — Connecticut Realtors, Citizens Bank and United Way — so donations directly support the emergency fund. By December, volunteers deliver all gifts to shelters.

“The campaign is so heartwarming,” said Madeline Ravich SOM ’09, a development advisor at the coalition and an original founder of Be Homeful. “It is wonderful to be able to give a little bit of comfort to children who are spending their holidays in shelters.”

The emergency fund supported by the Be Homeful Project aims to keep Connecticut families out of homelessness through shelter diversion — finding alternative housing and resources for families who would otherwise need to enter shelters. On average, the cost of keeping one family out of homelessness through shelter diversion is $1,000, according to Ravich. The funds raised by the Be Homeful Project this year will be enough to divert 75 families from the shelter system, Ravich added.

Shelter diversion is especially important for youth and families who are at-risk of homelessness, Ravich said. Experiencing homelessness in childhood is a predictor of whether a person will fall into homelessness as an adult, according to a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health.

“For a long time we were able to control how many people exit the [shelter] system, and how quickly we can exit them. But we had no control of the inflow,” said Richard Cho, chief executive officer of the coalition. “Be Homeful is great because it created not only a fund, but a whole system for identifying families who are on the brink of homelessness.”

Ravich founded the project in 2015, and the Be Homeful holiday campaign has become more successful every year since its inception. In its inaugural year, the campaign raised $50,000, while last year, the project raised $60,000. In the last three years, the project has helped more than 272 families, including 770 children. Ravich said that the coalition hopes to maintain momentum and has already started planning for the 2019 campaign.

The coalition — a network of over 100 partners involved in housing and homelessness — is also working on several other initiatives this year, including efforts to end chronic homelessness as well as mitigate youth and family homelessness in the Nutmeg state. Cho said that the coalition is currently looking to create more short-term financial assistance resources for housing-insecure families, including child support and lowered rent burden. Cho noted that the coalition plans to launch an “100-day challenge” in March to diminish youth homelessness.

“We can have a system that tries to prevent [homelessness] whenever possible,” said Cho. “Or if it cannot be prevented, [to try to ensure] that it is extraordinarily rare, that it is a very brief occurrence, and that it is a one-time experience that never has to be repeated.”

Cho also emphasized that the coalition uses data through the Connecticut Coordinated Access Networks — which provides publicly accessible data on homelessness in the state — to better target issues and implement interventions.

According to the data from the networks for this week, 1,663 individuals are actively homeless in Connecticut, including 230 people in the Greater New Haven area. The data shows that about 200 people are matched to housing every month, which closely matches the number of people who fall into homelessness per month, Cho noted. Over the course of a year, about 5,000 people enter homelessness and 5,000 individuals leave homelessness, Cho said, calling homelessness a “crisis that affects a lot of people.”

“I think what drives that is really the lack of affordable housing,” Cho said in reference to the state’s homelessness crisis. “What we hope to do is to show with data is that if we don’t create more affordable housing, we’re going to continue to create a crisis.”

Connecticut has the sixth highest housing cost in the nation, according to the Coalition website.

Looking forward, both Ravich and Cho expressed their hope that more community members and organizations will continue to think about homelessness and their role in alleviating housing insecurity. The Be Homeful project is currently working closely with Connecticut schools to distribute teaching materials about the impact of homelessness. The coalition is also recruiting volunteers for several of its ongoing projects.

“People think most about homelessness when it is cold outside,” said Ravich. “We want people to understand that family homelessness actually peaks in the summertime, when children are let out of school and parents are struggling more than usual to balance the extensive costs of childcare … We don’t want [people to stop thinking about homelessness] in February or March when the weather turns.”

The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness was founded in 1982.

Ruiyan Wang | ruiyan.wang@yale.edu