As Winter Approaches, Connecticut Works Toward Safer Solutions for Homelessness

Connecticut is again looking to increase space available for people without shelter this winter to stay in motels amid fears that church basements and other traditional warming centers aren’t equipped to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

When the virus began to spread quickly throughout Connecticut in March, the state contracted with hotels to move people out of crowded, congregate living spaces out of concern for COVID outbreaks among people without housing. In a similar effort, the state is using federal money to contract with hotels to keep warming shelter capacity at pre-pandemic levels this winter.

In Middletown, the state has contracted with Wesley Inn & Suites on Washington Street to house 25-30 people from Nov. 30 through March 31.

“It’s a sigh of relief for us with time winding down and it getting colder outside, we’re very happy this agreement between the state and Wesley Inn was put together,” interim Middletown Public Health Director Kevin Elak said. 

In March, about 1,000 people staying in crowded shelters were sent to hotels and motels around the state, Richard Cho, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said. As winter approaches, many of the same hotels are being looked at as options for keeping people housed.

During the first effort to contract hotels to shelter people, they weren’t able to find a partner in Middletown, and reached an agreement with the Red Roof Inn in Meriden instead, said Steve DiLella, director of the Individual and Family Support Program at the Connecticut Department of Housing.

This winter, Wesley Inn and Red Roof Inn are among the 12 hotels providing shelter, with other locations in Hartford, New Haven, Danbury, Stamford, Bridgeport, Milford, Shelton, New Britain and Waterbury, said DiLella.

He said that the state had not contracted with hotels in New London or Norwich given other shelter options available, though some space could be added later.

In the “decompression” effort to get people out of crowded shelters as COVID started spreading through Connecticut in March and April, the state had people staying in 13 hotels. Later with the warmer weather, the state reduced the number of contracted hotels to four, said DiLella. Now as Connecticut heads into winter, the state is expending its capacity again.

“I think our efforts at decompressing the shelters had a positive impact because the number of COVID positive cases in the homeless population was extremely low,” Di Lella said. “The idea of placing people in socially-distant spaces certainly had a positive impact on that, and we’re hopeful that will continue through this winter.”

Connecticut spent $12.5 million on the first “decompression” back in March – all federal money, with $9.375 million coming in 75 percent matching funds from FEMA, which the state used federal Coronavirus Relief Funds from the CARES Act and Community Development Block Grant funds to draw down.

For this effort, the Connecticut Department of Housing is allocating $6 million to keep winter warming shelter capacity at the same level as before COVID, including by contracting with hotels and motels like Wesley Inn & Suites in Middletown. Again, the state is using federal housing money to draw down FEMA matching funds and isn’t spending any state money on the initiative, according to DiLella.

The U.S. Housing and Urban Development has also given Connecticut 100 additional Mainstream Vouchers, which are reserved for people with disabilities who are not elderly, according to a Wednesday news release.

A less crowded alternative to church basements

Shelter capacity is expanded every year with state support, but this year COVID precautions have forced adjustments, Cho said. Church basements, a common place for a warming shelter, don’t have the ventilation needed to safely house people and protect them from COVID outbreaks, so towns have been looking at alternatives.

Normally, several churches in Middletown rotate to serve as warming shelters for people who are homeless in the winter months. Those spaces would have to limit capacity severely in order to ensure social distancing, Elak said.

“We have been frantically searching for the past several months for a space that would check all the boxes as far as accessibility, keeping people safe, not crowded together in a room, and the price,”Elak said.

Elak said the contract had not yet been finalized when speaking to the Examiner on Monday.

Warming shelters are usually just for overnight stays, and people staying there leave at 7 a.m., but the Wesley Inn will be staffed 24 hours a day by Columbus House – which has run warming centers in Middletown for several years and also offers case management to help residents find permanent housing Elak said. St. Vincent de Paul will provide food, and River Valley Services social workers will be there some days to provide mental health services, he said.

“We have identified people who we know need housing, and they’ll be asked if they want to go to the motel, and if they want, they can stay there from Nov. 30 all the way to next March,” Elak said. “It gets them a warm, safe place to go, to get people off the streets so there’s less risk of the virus moving between people.”

Cho said the partnerships between the state and health centers to conduct routine testing of people who are homeless will continue. Right now, the COVID positivity rate among the homeless population is 2.2 percent – lower than the state average, he said. 

“But with COVID rates ticking up across the state in general, we are worried about people who would be sleeping in congregate settings,” Cho said.

The plan is to test residents weekly so they can move anyone who tests positive to another location to isolate, Elak said. About 20 rooms will be occupied, and several of them are double-occupancy, so there will be about 25 to 30 people staying at the motel at a time, he said.

“Some people could come for a few days and then move on, or they may only need to stay for a week or something,” Elak said. “Nobody is going to be kicked out to make room for anyone else. There may come a time when unfortunately we don’t have enough room for everyone who needs it, but that’s when we would work with the other towns to get them somewhere.”

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