NEW HAVEN — Researchers believe that stable housing could be the key to reducing gun violence in one of Connecticut’s biggest cities.
Dr. Brita Roy, a former Yale researcher who now works at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, is working with local organizations in New Haven to pilot a three-year study that will provide housing and mental health support to residents of six of New Haven’s neighborhoods.
Virginia Spell, the executive director of the Urban League of Connecticut, has been working on gun violence reduction and other issues in the community for decades. Her husband is a retired homicide detective and the former program manager for Project Longevity. She said that combating gun violence with housing and trauma counseling was a novel approach.
“We’ve never really thought about the impact of stabilizing health care, mental health treatment and housing — what does that do to reduce recidivism,” said Spell. “Nobody across the country is doing this.”
According to Roy, housing is one of the key issues that has been found in earlier studies to make a difference in gun violence rates. She said that the best evidence from prior studies show that dismantling public high-rises and fixing up abandoned houses has decreased assaults and gun violence. Turning vacant lots into green spaces also led to a decrease in crime in the area, as did reducing the availability of alcohol.
“If a family can own a home, that also can start building intergenerational wealth. And that is really critical,” Roy said. She added that it also created “social cohesion” — bringing neighbors together — and that people take better care of their properties when they own rather than rent.
“Actually having cleaner, nicer, greener, more kept-up spaces and fewer abandoned buildings in the neighborhood — that is also a mechanism to deter gun violence in the long run,” Roy said.
The study will include 1400 people and families from six New Haven neighborhoods: Fair Haven, Whalley/Edgewood/Beaver Hills, Newhallvill, Dwight/West River, Dixwell and the Hill.
Spell said these were the six neighborhoods in the city that experience the highest rates of gun violence.
According to the city’s end-of-year reports, violent crime has declined steadily in the last four years, from 1,074 incidents in 2019 to 669 incidents in 2022. But Spell said that violence tends to be cyclical.
“Over the span of 10 years, we’ve seen gun violence peak and go up and go down,” said Spell. “I don’t think there’s a correlation really between the work that we do and whether or not gun violence increases or decreases.”
Roy said that while she didn’t think it would be possible to get rates of gun violence all the way to zero, she hoped their work could reduce some of the more extreme spikes in violence.
“We know we had a peak in 2011. We had another peak in 2020. If we could get those peaks lower, if we can get the overall average year-to-year lower, I mean, that would be phenomenal,” she said.
Roy said they decided to focus their outreach efforts on family members of people currently incarcerated and people just released from prison. She said this was a way for the researchers to focus on people they believed were at the highest risk of gun violence.
Roy said it was possible that the nationwide increase in gun violence in 2020 was connected to a lack of housing for people released from prison.
“There was this hypothesis that we saw a big uptick because so many people got released from prison … and maybe it’s because when people are released from prison, they don’t have safe places to stay. Right. They don’t have support,” said Roy. “And so, if we’re able to stabilize their families so that they do have a place to stay and not [a] halfway house or be homeless, perhaps that would alleviate some stressors that end up leading to engaging in gun violence.”
Roy said that the first part of the study was aimed at increasing access to stable housing, through a combination of financial education and low-interest home loans or rental assistance. They are partnering with the Connecticut Housing and Finance Authority, the Livable Cities Initiative and the Neighborhood Cities Initiative to provide residents with temporary financial assistance for housing, as well as using funds from the Yale School of Medicine. Spell said they would also be able to offer Section 8 housing vouchers through the city of New Haven.
But Spell added that the financial supports were not meant to be a long-term solution. She said the financial literacy training they give participants — which includes credit and budgeting counseling and renters counseling — is key even after the initial housing voucher is no longer available.
“Your overall rental cost should be about 30% of your income. And what we saw during COVID … 50 percent and sometimes greater of their income was going toward their housing costs. That’s not sustainable for anybody,” said Spell.
The second part focuses on mental health training, what Roy referred to as a “trusted network of community members” in trauma-informed counseling, so they can identify people who were affected by gun violence and help them get mental health services.
“It’s broad — it can be barbers, faith leaders, educators — you know, the woman on the block that sits on her porch and just knows everybody,” Roy told legislators.
Roy said the researchers would also be working with organizations like Clifford Beers, a community care center that provides mental health services, Ice the Beef, an anti-gun violence organization, and with some of the centers at Yale.
Roy said the group wants to create a state-level coalition that can change policies and eliminate race-related barriers for people who need housing help or mental health care.
Spell said she felt confident that the community would be on board with the study.
“People want to see a solution to the problems that they face,” said Spell. “Folks want to live in clean, safe, affordable housing. And they want to feel that the community has a voice in how that could potentially happen.”
The study is being supported by a $700,000 grant from the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities. Roy said they also have an additional $1.2 million in the form of donations from the Yale School of Medicine, as well as housing vouchers that study participants can access.
The researchers will spend six months working with each neighborhood, one neighborhood at a time, starting with the Beaver Hills/Edgewood neighborhood, and follow the participants for a
year after the study ends. Roy said that while the researchers would be primarily looking at gun violence rates, she also wanted to look at issues including rates of eviction, homeownership and loan approval, how much people were able to save and the perception of safety in the neighborhood.
Roy told CT Examiner that they may need to consider whether a model for New Haven would work in Bridgeport, or if it would have to be modified to address the unique needs of that city. But she told lawmakers that she would have liked to expand the study to include Hartford and Bridgeport.
“There are a number of different things —- at least, let’s say, five to seven really important things at the community level, that impact and influence rates of gun violence. Everyone can’t work on all of those things at once,” said Roy. “And so for each particular city or community, which of those are going to be highest yield? Which of those things are most feasible to work on? Those are the things to really think about.”
Editor’s note: Roy’s affiliation with NYU has been corrected