For Judith, finding a place to stay on her budget has been a struggle.
The 66-year-old New London resident has been staying at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center for a little over a month since being evicted from her apartment. Since then, she said, she’s been searching for a place to rent, but it hasn’t been easy. And because she uses a walker, going to look at places has been a challenge, and the places she looked into were beyond anything she could afford.
“You need to come up with security and first month’s rent, and it’s just ridiculous,” said Judith.
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She said the minimum rent for a one-bedroom apartment that she’s been able to find has been about $1,200 a month. But with an income of $2,000 a month — which she said places her outside the eligibility for food stamps — spending over half of her monthly income on rent would mean giving up another critical item in her budget.
“So, say I’m spending $1,200 on my own — it’s tough to pay an electric bill … I end up with no food,” she said.
Judith told CT Examiner that she had been discouraged by the help available for elderly residents. She said she had called 211 for help, but hadn’t gotten anywhere.
“There’s nothing. There’s really nothing,” said Judith. “I was shocked by how little elderly services helps.”
She said she’s hoping to find a room that she can share with another woman staying at the hospitality center named Jan.
Jan, who is 60, said she makes about $842 per month in Social Security payments and receives $330 in food stamps.
Their ideal apartment, they said, would be a regular two-bedroom with a kitchen and a living room. Sharing a place would mean they could avoid having to room with someone they didn’t know. And they want to stay in New London.
“The salt water air — I have asthma. It’s good for it,” said Jan, adding that New London was “beautiful.”
It’s a common story, reported recently in both the New York Times and Washington Post that shelters across the country have seen an increase in demand — a combination of recent rent hikes driven by a booming housing market and a shortage of available housing that goes back decades. And while the problem is perhaps most visible in large cities, it is by no means isolated to those areas.
Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, said that rising rents have especially affected seniors on Social Security, people who often are already spending the majority of their income on housing.
“If the housing market goes up substantially, it doesn’t take long before you go from being very rent burdened to having nothing available,” said Zall.
Ryan Beach, the coalition’s interim director of development and communications, said that while the overall number of people over the age of 55 needing shelter has remained relatively stable, seniors now represent a larger percentage of people in need of housing support, while the presence of other age groups at the shelters have declined. While data from the Connecticut Access Network shows that the number of people entering shelters across the state has remained relatively stable compared to last year, with an increase of about 6 percent, the number of people ages 62 or over entering shelters has increased 20 percent.
Similarly, at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, the percentage of the residents seeking shelter who are age 62 and older jumped from 9 percent last year to 18 percent this year, according to the data on its use.
Deirdre Houlihan DiCara, executive director of Friends in Service to Humanity of Northwestern Connecticut, a non-profit that helps people with food and fuel and provides emergency shelter, said that she, like Zall, has seen an increase in the number of seniors looking for shelter with their organization. DiCara told CT Examiner that some of the seniors who come to them might not be able to manage things like grocery shopping or have access to transportation, making it difficult for them to live alone in an apartment.
“The people living in the shelters really need respite care. They need a safe place to be,” she said. “There’s nothing out there if you can’t afford to get into assisted living, which these folks cannot. Where do we place you [so] that you’re safe and you have a decent life, with respect, with dignity?”
Both Zall and DiCara told CT Examiner that the higher number of seniors puts an extra burden on the shelters, which aren’t always prepared to deal with the seniors’ needs. Zall said the shelter had to get rid of most of their bunk beds because the seniors weren’t able to navigate them. DiCara said that some of the people who come to her have Alzheimer’s, or incontinence, or need to be helped in the bathroom.
“We’re not equipped to do that. We are not a nursing facility,” said DiCara.
Margaret Middleton, CEO of Columbus House, a shelter in New Haven, said that while she hadn’t necessarily seen an increase in any particular age population at Columbus House, she believed homelessness in general was trending toward older people.
“People call it the ‘silver tsunami,’” said Middleton.
But the elderly aren’t the only ones being affected by what Middleton said is the lack of available affordable housing in the state. Middleton said that the overall demand at Columbus House had been high since the pandemic. She said that even people who held housing vouchers are having trouble finding units to rent.
Middleton said that the majority of working people who rent are either “rent burdened,” meaning they pay 30 percent or more of their income on housing, or “severely rent burdened,” meaning that half or more of their income goes to housing.
“Connecticut has a housing affordability crisis,” she said. “Even prior to this momentary spike in rental prices that we’re seeing, there already were not enough affordable units for the number of people who needed them.”
“Everything is so expensive”
Another woman at the New London Hospitality Center, who spoke with CT Examiner on condition of anonymity, said this wasn’t the first time she’d been at the shelter.
The 70-year-old said she had bounced from one apartment to another since 2012, when the bank foreclosed on her father’s house. Her father had remortgaged his home in 2006, but after he died, she said, she was unable to pay the mortgage payments. Then, her partner was diagnosed with a series of health problems, including Alzheimer’s disease, and had to be placed in a convalescent home.
“I never in a million years thought I would be in a situation where I was homeless,” the woman told CT Examiner.
Without the income from her partner, she said, she receives $851 a month from Social Security. She also receives food stamps, but has not been able to get a housing voucher. Before her partner became sick, they had talked about moving to California together.
“Everything is so expensive nowadays, and [Connecticut] is a very expensive state,” she said.
The woman told CT Examiner that she wanted to go back to work, but needed to get cataract surgery first.But she said that Medicare had closed out her account when she wasn’t able to pay the premium, and that she would have to wait until next January to apply for open benefits. She said the shelter was trying to figure out insurance so that she didn’t have to wait that long for treatment.
“I can’t see my way around,” she explained.
The 70-year-old said she was going to the resource center on Bank Street that afternoon, to see about getting an apartment. She said she wasn’t sure what she would be able to afford, but hoped for “as normal an apartment as I could have” on her limited budget.
“The need has not gone away”
Evonne Klein, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said that the network had been receiving a higher number of 211 calls from people who needed housing support. But she said that the state had also been able to manage the increased need, and that shelter numbers across the state have remained stable.
“Here in Connecticut, we do have one of the strongest homeless response systems in the nation. And it is because we have a very strong homeless response system [that] we are able to accommodate the need,” she said.
Lisa Tepper Bates, CEO of United Way, the agency tasked with 211, said that calls to 211 from people who were homeless or about to be homeless had increased from 5,455 last June to 8,683 people this June. And she said the call center saw an even steeper increase in the number of people calling in search of rental assistance or more affordable housing.
Tepper Bates said that the team tries to do the best they can to get people what they need, but that they are limited by their own staff capacity and by the services in the surrounding communities.
“Our team [of] very dedicated crisis specialists … do the best they can to answer calls quickly. But [it’s] important to note that our bandwidth is simply not what’s needed. Sometimes, in the day we’re receiving 50 calls an hour. And our bandwidth is just not up to that,” she said.
David Rich, president of the non-profit The Housing Collective that represents a network of housing groups in Western Connecticut, said that he understands the frustration that people might feel when calling into 211, but he said that the expectations for shorter wait times on a call center that handles 80,000 calls per year might be too high. He also said that 211 has to prioritize the calls it receives and focus on getting services to people who are in immediate need of housing.
“211 is charged by us to really discern who’s literally homeless and who’s not. And that can be very frustrating to people who might have an eviction notice, but still have a place to live for the next month,” he said.
Both he and Klein also noted that many people experiencing housing instability are able to figure things out on their own, even if it means “doubling up” or moving in with friends in the short-term. Tepper Bates said that sometimes, 211 is able to provide people with things other than housing, such as food and help paying utility bills.
“Most people are resilient, and families are resilient, and we don’t want to really interfere with that process,” said Rich, adding that he felt the people in a situation were best equipped to find a solution. “We want to only be there for those that truly need it.”
Rich and Tepper Bates both said that 211 needed additional funding in order to continue their current level of 24-hour services.
“We are very aware that people are unhappy about the wait times,” said Tepper Bates. “And we are, too.”
Shelter directors like Middleton, meanwhile, say the state needs to invest in the longer-term project of building more housing units.
“And I don’t mean like we need hundreds of units,” said Middleton. “I mean like tens of thousands of units, like we need to really go on a building boom of housing.”
The Housing Collective estimates that the state needs approximately 86,000 additional units of affordable housing to meet the current demand.
Middleton also said that it would have helped to have a greater number of housing vouchers available at the federal level.
DiCara said that while the state was waiting on more affordable housing to be built, there needed to be more funds dedicated to supporting the shelters. She said that shelters only receive about half their costs from the Department of Housing, and are dependent on fundraising for the rest.
Zall agreed that rental assistance and more housing units were the necessary fixes to the problem, but acknowledged the difficulty with both solutions. Building additional affordable housing units, she said, would take time, and offering rental assistance is expensive and difficult to administer.
Zall also said she was concerned about the hole that was being left by the loss of federal coronavirus relief funding, some of which had been put toward first month’s rent and security deposits for people in need of housing. New London, she said, had put aside about $300,000 in coronavirus relief funding for rental assistance, a fund that she said was now exhausted. The statewide UniteCT program, which allocated close to $253 million in rental assistance using the federal funds, ended in March 2022.
“I don’t see on the horizon anything replacing [the federal funding]. And the need has not gone away,” she said.
The original version of this story incorrectly referred to The Housing Collective as CT Housing Collective. This has been corrected.