MIDDLETOWN — The state’s junior U.S. senator spent an hour Monday hearing from people working to develop innovative programs to end youth and young adult homelessness in Connecticut.
Last month, Connecticut received $6.5 million in federal grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to pay for a new program to eliminate youth homelessness. It might seem like an unattainable goal, but U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said recent successes are encouraging.
Agencies represented Monday afternoon at The Connection, 100 Roscommon Drive, received a portion of this federal funding, intended to pay for new programs aimed at making sure any child experiencing homelessness can find permanent housing and support.
In 2016, Connecticut was the first state in the nation to proclaim that it had housed all chronically homeless veterans, and had matched all chronically homeless individuals with housing, according to the Coalition on Housing + Homelessness in Middletown.
“Connecticut has done innovative work around attacking homelessness, so when you’re pitching for dollars to come back to the state for something like youth homelessness, it’s not that hard, because people know if they send the money to Connecticut, there’s going to be a lot of providers who are going to do the right thing with the money,” said Murphy, the first Connecticut senator to serve on the Senate Appropriations Committee in over 30 years.
“There are still far too many kids who are out on our streets today. It’s terrible when anybody is homeless, but when young people are homeless, it sends them into a downward spiral that is often hard to get out from underneath,” he said.
The $6.5 million will be used for shelter diversion and rapid exit programs, youth navigators (who do street outreach), integrative housing programs and rapid rehousing resources.
“That first episode of homelessness as a young person, if not properly addressed, can be crippling, especially if it involves mental illness and addiction,” Murphy said.
“We’re on the brink of tremendous change in the state. I hope we all believe we’re going to be one of the first, if not the first, in the state to end youth homelessness,” said Mary Ann “Mimi” Haley, deputy director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.
“If a youth is falling into homelessness, we should be there to treat that youth as a unique individual to really help problem solve with them, and understand what they need to stabilize, really having a holistic approach,” said Haley, who championed youth navigators.
“‘We really want to go to one person, and have them shepherd us through all these different systems and resources that might be out there for us — but we don’t want to go to this place, this place, and this place,’” Haley said youth tell her.
“When a young person is walking in the door, we’re going to have not only this problem-solving conversation around housing, but also working to connect them to employment, mental health services, DCF, education — so that safety net will begin to weave together for them,” Haley said.
Within the coming weeks, Steve DiLella, director of the Connecticut Department of Housing, told the senator, his agency will be housing its first youth.
“The statewide plan does address things like outreach and engagement, having better data. … It involves not just the services, such as the navigation, and crisis housing and rapid rehousing. It involves partnering with the state Department of Correction, DCF, education systems, local colleges,” said Lisa Bahadosingh, director of youth initiatives and special projects at Supportive Housing Works of Bridgeport.
Most youth aren’t aware of agencies that could help them due to inexperience — or don’t trust these systems because they’ve had bad or even traumatizing experiences in the past, she said.
“Some of our chronically homeless adults, they understand, if they lose their IDs, how to get it. They’re mostly connected to Medicaid or food stamps. Youth who are homeless and have aged out of foster care are on their own for the first time or coming out of incarceration with no adult supports, plenty of them have no access to these kinds of resources,” Bahadosingh said.
“They don’t trust systems enough to come to us to get it. We understand we need to go to them,” she added.
Couch surfing, which homeless people of all ages do, presents far more dangers to young people, said Regina Moller, executive director of Noank Community Support Services of Groton.
Her agency conducted an 18-month-long unfunded pilot to determine what happens to those 18 to 24 in a “smaller, different type of model setting for crisis housing. Youth that age didn’t do well in the adult shelter. It was not safe, there were a lot of negative influences for them to continue in some of their negative behaviors,” Moller said.
“‘We’ve never had a moment where we could stop and think of any goals, because it was always about survival,’” Moller said youth tell her — “not just survival off the streets, but in the adult shelter.”
Solutions can begin once youth are willing to trust the outreach workers trying to help them. “It’s all about relationship and mentoring, moving into permanent housing, sustaining that after securing jobs, and getting life skills training,” she said.
Murphy asked what sends people of all ages out onto the streets.
“The most staggering difference has to do with family rejection/family non-acceptance. It presents to us at the front door as a symptom of homelessness, but more or less the disease is a lack of support from the federal government,” said John Lawlor, director of the Homeless Youth/Young Adult Program at The Connection.
Mental health and substance abuse issues are also at play, he said, but, “every time we look at it, the reason seems to be the lack of a safe place to return home to,” Lawlor added.
The reasons why these young people are homeless are often different from adults, he added.
According to the state’s youth count data, Lawlor said, “it is not that youth are spending more time outside (homeless) — that’s probably more the exception than the norm — they tend to choose high-risk options that put a roof over their head, but put their personal and emotional safety at very high jeopardy,” Lawlor said.