Last year, the state provided 20 housing vouchers to low-income families whose children are enrolled in the federal Head Start early childcare program. In July, the pilot will expand to offer vouchers to an additional 35 families.
It’s a choice that state officials hope will pay dividends.
“With families, with young children, we know that housing stability is so critical when it comes to a child’s health and development — even behavioral and mental health for the child, as well as the family,” said Elena Trueworthy,
The program is a partnership between the state Department of Housing and the Office of Early Childhood, and is the first of its kind in the nation. The program allows families who have children in the federal Head Start program — which provides free preschool and child development programs to children between the ages of 0 and 5 — to receive Section 8 vouchers for housing that have been set aside specifically for these families.
The Department of Housing plans to set aside one out of every three “turnover units,” or apartment units that are vacated by the previous owners, for the Head Start families. According to Steve DiLilla, director of the individual and family support program unit at the state Department of Housing, they expect this to yield an additional 50 to 75 apartment units available each year.
DiLilla told CT Examiner that putting aside the vouchers for Head Start families would make it more likely for these families to receive the vouchers, since they could bypass the lengthy waitlist process that most individuals have to go through in order to receive federal housing vouchers.
This was the case for Meghan Gonzalez, who has three children ages 6, 5, and 3, and is pregnant with a fourth. Two of her three children are enrolled in LULAC Head Start in New Haven. Through participation in the program, Gonzalez was able to secure one of the five vouchers that LULAC received as part of the pilot program.
DiLella said putting aside some of the vouchers for families with small children — who, he said, would have qualified for Section 8 Housing anyway — was also a way of maximizing the efficacy of the voucher program. While the state’s allocation of federally assisted housing vouchers has not increased significantly, the demand for the program has, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic as rents began to rise.
“Clearly, there are more folks in need of rental assistance than we have availability to provide,” said
“We need to make strategic decisions on how to be able to help as many of these subpopulations as possible.”
DiLilla said that by providing housing for these families while also placing these children on a path to increased education could be a way to ensure that they would not find themselves struggling in the same way their parents did to afford things like stable housing.
“We’re going to be looking at this two-gen or intergenerational approach to end the cycle of poverty and homelessness, hopefully,” said DiLella. “[The Department of Housing] provides sustainable housing. And then the [Office of Early Childhood], through the Early Head Start, works with the families on that early education, so hopefully the children will be able to thrive in schools and then be able to flourish when they become older.”
“You didn’t know what tomorrow was going to bring”
Meghan Gonzalez never thought she would be homeless.
Five years ago, she was living in a six-family apartment with her husband and her oldest child. Then, she and her husband both lost their jobs. According to Gonzalez, the family was having problems with another tenant, and her landlord served them with an eviction notice, despite, she said, having paid their rent. She said they took the landlord to court, but, in the meantime, were trying to find somewhere else to live.
Gonzalez said that she searched for housing assistance but without luck. She said that repeated calls to 211, the state’s help line, yielded nothing. She said she was denied entry into homeless shelters, and that she couldn’t get a spot in Scattered Sites, a public housing complex, or in other housing developments she applied to. She also placed herself on the waitlist for Section 8 housing, where she said she dropped from around number 9,000 on the waitlist to 12,000. According to DiLilla, the Department of Housing does not bump people back on the Section 8 list, although he couldn’t speak for other Housing Authorities.
In the end, Gonzalez said, they ended up bouncing from family member to family member.
“You know how family is — like – ‘oh, you could stay for a few days.’ But then it turns into a little while longer. And then, next thing you know, it’s a couple years you’re staying with them and it gets frustrating on both sides,” said Gonzalez. “It doesn’t work out the way everybody expects it to. You end up butting heads with everybody, and then, next thing you know, you have nowhere to go besides your vehicle.”
Last summer, Gonzalez moved into a hotel with her children. Between July 31 and mid-December, she said, she spent at least $10,000 on hotel bills.
“You didn’t know what tomorrow was going to bring. You didn’t know if you can get groceries and bring them into the hotel room because then you might have to pack everything up and leave the next day,” she said.
Earlier this year, Gonzalez said, Janic Maysonet, Family Community Partnership Manager at LULAC Head Start in New Haven, approached her and asked if she was interested in applying for one of their vouchers. She handed in her paperwork on a Monday in March. By Friday, she was approved.
After looking at a couple of apartments, they finally decided on a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a house in New Haven, which Gonzalez pays $80 for per month. The family officially moved in in May.
Gonzalez said that while the apartment wasn’t everything she expected, she really likes it. She said her children are also happy — they have their own bedrooms.
“It was hard when I heard my son say to his brother … ‘We can’t do this because we’re homeless’ … So it’s still trying to click with them. It’s mentally still trying to click with me,” she said. “I remember the first day when we moved in, my son came to us and was like, ‘Mommy, can I go play in my room?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, go ahead. It’s your room. Go. You don’t have to ask me.”
The program’s expansion is still small compared to the number of Connecticut families with young children in need of housing assistance — about 240 Head Start and Early Head Start families, according to data from the state Office of Early Childhood.
In 2020-21, about 5,000 Connecticut children participated in the Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Elena Trueworthy, director of the CT Head Start Collaboration Office, said that in a typical year, about 5 percent of the Head Start recipients need housing assistance. But during the pandemic, she said, that number increased.
According to data from the 2020-21 school year, about 7 percent of families with children in Head Start qualified as homeless, which equates to about 320 families. Of those 320, about 90 found housing during the year, leaving 240 still without housing support. According to Trueworthy, these remaining 240 families are the families that are being targeted with the Head Start on Housing program.
Trueworthy said that she believes the percentage of children in Head Start in need of housing has increased even further in the current year, although the data isn’t yet available.
And that number doesn’t include the families who are on waiting lists to participate in the Head Start programs. Trueworthy said that while the state doesn’t keep data on waitlists for the federally-run program, there is always a “significant” waitlist for children who are eligible for Early Head Start. She said that at one Head Start program in Connecticut, the center had a waitlist of 118 families for their Early Head Start program.
Heather Granja, program coordinator for Area Cooperative Education Services in Middletown, said that ACES had about 60 families participating in Early Head Start, the program for infants and toddlers, and an additional 35 in the Head Start program. Over 60 percent of the families in the two programs this year, she said, claimed a need for housing support.
“You’re working with Head Start clients. You’re dealing with low-income, high risks and special needs, so you have to think of it in that lens,” she said.
ACES received five vouchers when the program began. Granja said they expected to receive more with the expansion, although she wasn’t sure yet how many.
The first round of vouchers was distributed between three cities — Bridgeport, New Haven and Middletown. Trueworthy said that the state partnered with local agencies in the cities who had clients with housing needs and who expressed willingness to put in the work to get the program started. Those three municipalities, Trueworthy said, still needed more vouchers, but the state is also looking at how they could expand the program to other cities.
Maysonet, the family community partnership manager at LULAC, said that while LULAC received five vouchers, there were nine families at LULAC who they were considering giving the vouchers to. He said they were able to connect the four families who didn’t receive the vouchers with other means of housing support.
But Maysonet said he anticipates that more people will come forward and ask to be part of the program. Just after participating in a press conference on June 13 announcing the expansion with the program, he received several calls inquiring about participation in the program. He said he tells the families that they are expecting to receive more vouchers, but that, in the meantime, they would need to go through 211.
“It’s hard to look at a family and tell them this is the only way to do it,” said Maysonet. “As much as we’d like to have that direct referral process, we don’t.”
DiLella said that another critical part of the program was recruiting landlords who would be willing to accept the vouchers.
Elliot Morales, a landlord who has properties in cities across the state, recently rented two of his units in Portland to families in the Head Start program. One of the families, he said, has a 9-year-old and an 11-month-old. The other has a five-year-old.
Morales said that he rents about 85 percent of his properties to tenants who receive federal housing vouchers. He said that he likes that the program allows him to rent to families with young children who need help. Additionally, the program guarantees that the rent will be paid, even if the tenant loses their source of employment — an advantage that he tries to explain to other landlords.
“I tell them, my experience is [that] I’ve had people that lose their jobs, especially through the pandemic — while you were sweating, I was getting my rent guaranteed,” he said, referring to his participation in the program as “a no-brainer.”
Maysonet said that he felt having LULAC involved in the housing process encouraged landlords who might have otherwise been hesitant to rent to the families participating in the program.
“The landlords are shy from these types of programs and, and all they need to be is educated,” said Maysonet.
Granja agreed about the need for education.
“I think a lot of it comes with educating and helping landlords understand what the program is, how it works. Sometimes novel things, new things are scary and unknown and — will it really work? Are we really gonna get paid? — Those types of things,” said Granja.
DiLilla said that the Department of Housing has created marketing materials for landlords to inform them about the program. He also said that the local Head Start programs provide critical connections with landlords and partners in the community.
“We’ve already lost everything”
Since there aren’t enough vouchers to support all the families who could potentially qualify, Trueworthy said they try to place families strategically with other resources that can provide housing, such as Coordinated Access Networks, or local agencies that connect people with housing options in their communities, or the Department of Children and Families’
“It’s really about understanding what the resources are at a local level, and … leveraging them to reach as many families as possible,” said Trueworthy.
But Maysonet said that the current system, which requires families to call 211 in order to access services through the Coordinated Access Networks, can be frustrating for people who are looking for housing — people like Gonzalez.
Gonzalez said that while she was grateful for the apartment, and grateful to Maysonet and LULAC, she also felt that the system needed to be easier to navigate for people who are trying to find a safe place to live.
“I don’t feel like it should be that much of a struggle for somebody who’s homeless,” she said. “When you’re homeless, you have nothing. You don’t have paperwork. You don’t have paper trails of anything … I didn’t have birth certificates, social security cards, I didn’t have nothing like that … And I had to borrow money from people and people were tired of [my] just borrowing money from them.”
“It was a process that homeless people should not have to go through,” she added. “We’ve already lost everything. We’ve already lost our sanity and everything, too, on top of that. Just cut us a little bit of slack.”
“This ability to take a deep breath”
Trueworthy said that ideally, they hope to be able to expand the program even further, to cover more families — particularly if the program has positive results. She said that the state Department of Housing plans to continue setting aside vouchers for the program. Trueworthy said it would be fantastic to get federal support for the program as well.
“This is the first of its kind in the country. We’re getting some traction just nationally.” she said. “This partnership makes sense. It really highlights the strengths and the resources from each group.”
Having stable housing also has positive benefits for children, especially when it comes to their health and their cognitive development. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that housing instability is correlated with poor health and risks to child development in children below the age of three.
Granja said that having housing reduces the overall stress of the family, which then trickles down to the children. She said this makes it possible for the child to engage in learning.
“You see this ability to take that deep breath … that so many of us take for granted when we walk in the door of our house,” she said. “And so I think you definitely see a more relaxed child, someone who’s more able and apt to be learning.”
Gonzalez said she watched her children thrive in the Head Start program — she said it improves their mental abilities, and that they learn things there that she felt she wouldn’t be able to teach them. For example, she said, her son came home one day singing a Spanish song that he’d learned at the LULAC center.
“Knowing that my children were safe and are still safe in LULAC — it was, like, it was the best feeling ever,” she said. “I had nowhere safe to be able to put them and say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m gonna teach you this’ when I was more worried about trying to find a roof over their head and food for them,” she said.