NEW LONDON — Rising rents and evictions have pushed the number of students needing food, transportation and shelter back to pre-pandemic levels in the New London public schools.
So far this year, New London has reported about 250 students living in shelters, without stable housing or “couch-surfing” at the homes of friends or relatives.
Carrie Rivera, New London’s executive director of school and family supports, said that the number of students identified as living in transient and unstable home environments is on the rise. Last year, the state recorded the district as having 184 homeless students. Rivera said that, according to her numbers, the district had identified 252 homeless students as of October of this year, compared to 202 homeless students in October of last year.
There are a number of ways that the district can identify students without homes. A student might report to a teacher that they are homeless, or a parent might call in and tell the school that there has been a change in address. Cynthia Ritchie, the district’s superintendent, said each school has a support team led by social workers who then make contact with the families.
“The last thing we want is for kids to sleep in cars or not have anywhere to sleep at night,” said Rivera.
In 2021, the federal government created a grant specifically to support homeless students as part of the federal coronavirus relief funds. Seventy-nine districts in Connecticut received funds in 2021 and 14 districts received grant funds in 2022.
New London, which received about $202,500 the first year and $108,000 last year, put the majority of the funding toward transportation, temporary housing and enrichment activities for the students, along with other items they might need.
“Typically, when we have families living in hotels, they don’t have a refrigerator or they don’t have a microwave or a hot plate or some way of cooking,” said Rivera. “So we can provide those things, also through our grants, to help them.”
Rivera said transportation was one of the largest costs for the district — she said the district spent $24,000 transporting students without homes just in September and October of this year.
Because New London is an all-magnet school district, the city takes in about a quarter of its students from other surrounding districts, which contributes to the high transportation costs. The district also used the money to purchase clothing and school supplies.
The majority of homeless students are not living in shelters, but are instead “doubling up” — living on someone’s couch or in an apartment that isn’t their own. Of the 223 students the district counted as homeless in November of this year, more than half are elementary school students. Latino students make up about 55 percent of the student body but are two-thirds of the district’s homeless population.
Rivera explained the increased homelessness in New London is a combination of the lasting effects of COVID and the expensive rental market in the area.
“We’re still seeing the repercussions of families losing employment or losing family members that were helping with the financial pieces,” said Rivera, adding that “New London is surprisingly expensive to live in.”
Ritchie also said that rental properties in the area had sold in the spring and summer months, leading to evictions.
Eviction filings this year have doubled compared to the number of evictions last year — from 206 to 514.
“It’s a big problem”
Homelessness in the New London area hasn’t just been on the rise among students and families. Jamie Parker, Project Manager for the Eastern CT Coordinated Access Network, told CT Examiner that her network has also seen an increase in adults looking for shelter as the winter approaches.
“The month of November is typically when our warming centers open, and historically we see a few people during the month of November, but we’re seeing unprecedented amounts of utilizers during this month,” said Parker.
Parker said that calls for housing assistance have increased across the board.
“Housing is expensive and rents are going up, and evictions are happening,” said Parker. “Landlords, I think, after the pandemic are tired. They went a long time without getting their rents paid.”
Parker also said that many of the landlords that her network had relationships with sold their properties to large corporations, which then charged higher rents.
Fortuna Lebron, Housing Services Coordinator at Covenant House, also said that landlords had become “stiff” since the pandemic – raising the requirements for new renters and raising prices.
“Even with those households that have permanent supportive housing vouchers, section eight and all that type of stuff, landlords are still demanding three times the income. Good credit, I mean 600 and better,” she said.
But according toGreg Kirshner, the executive director at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, if landlords make income requirements of people with housing vouchers, the requirements should be based on the percentage of rent paid by a tenant rather than the total rent. For example, if a landlord charges $1,000 per month and a tenant must pay $200, then an income requirement of three times the monthly rent should be $600, not $3,000.
Kirshner also said that he believed the presence of a housing voucher made a tenant’s credit score much less important or necessary for the landlord to know.
“Absent some specific information about not paying rent, the credit is not really relevant, and can have a disparate impact on people based upon various protected classes: source of income, race, sex,” he said.
Lebron said that she’s had landlords that were uninterested in working with her clients, and a few that haven’t even returned their calls.
“A lot of them are very reluctant to want to even work with anybody coming from the homeless community, honestly. I’ve had landlords hang up on me when I give my title,” she said. “When they hear homelessness, I guess they have an image in their head. And it sucks because not everybody who comes into homelessness put themselves in this position. Sometimes life just happens out of their control.”
According to data from the 211 Network, about 31 percent of the roughly 97,000 calls received statewide in the months of September, October, November and early December were about housing.
Of those, 47 percent were about shelter, 14 percent were about low-cost housing and 19 percent were calls for rent assistance. Of the calls dealing with rental assistance, 54 percent were marked as “unmet” — meaning that there was no available help at the time of the calls.
In New London County, half of the 326 calls made for rental assistance in those three months went “unmet,” according to the data. Additionally, 15 percent of the nearly 1,000 calls made for shelter in the county were also classified as unmet.
Jeanne Milstein, the City of New London’s director of human services, said that her department had put aside some of the American Rescue Plan Act funds for local non-profits, which she said they can use to help people with security deposits and first month’s rent, as well as application fees. Mayor Michael Passero said there were also funds put aside to help current homeowners make necessary repairs to their homes, like replacing roofs and heating systems.
“Helping people be able to afford to maintain their homes – we identified that as a really important initiative in the city,” said Passero. “The incomes in New London are so low that people are not going to be able to afford to put money into their home.”
Passero said that the City of New London has one of the highest percentages of affordable housing in the state — nearly a quarter of the city’s housing stock is considered affordable. But he said that can make it difficult to get state funding to build more affordable housing, since the state policies prioritize affordable housing in towns that don’t have as much available.
“It is very difficult for an affordable housing developer in New London to score high enough to to qualify. It’s very competitive to get those low income housing tax credits,” said Passero.
Passero said the city had received funding for an apartment complex on Bayonet Street that will have 64 units of subsidized housing. But he said that he’d like to build more.
Lebron told CT Examiner that the lack of affordable housing in New London County was worse than she’d seen in eight years of working at the shelter. She said that the demolition of the Crystal Avenue apartments meant a loss of 150 affordable housing units. The current price of a two-bedroom apartment in New London, she said, is around $1,600 a month. Like Cunningham, most of the families she serves are single-parent households, and many don’t earn more than $2,000 monthly.
Tricia Cunningham, executive director of Always Home in Mystic, also noted that housing costs had hit levels that she called “out of reach.” Cunningham said that some of the families she works with are rejected because of poor credit or prior evictions. Others can’t afford to pay the first month’s rent and a security deposit, something that her organization tries to help with.
She said they also try to help with things like transportation and childcare, which can prevent people from working and set them behind even further on rent. She said that most of the families she worked with were single mothers taking care of children.
Cunningham said that New London County received over $25 million from the federal government during COVID through the Unite CT program, which, while helpful, was time-limited.
“It was a godsend for a lot of people,” said Cunningham. “But since that funding has slowly gone away, we’re seeing the needs increase. We’re seeing more phone calls and greater need.”
And even with the funding, Cunningham said, her organization only saw a slight drop in the number of families coming for help – from 326 families in 2021 to 286 families in 2022.
“The underlying problems haven’t been solved. The lower wage earners not being able to keep up with the rising costs,” she said. “Meanwhile, that federal funding has been reduced dramatically. And you’re seeing housing costs go up and less housing that’s affordable be available … combine all of that together, it’s a big problem.”