Amid the historic buildings, antique colonial and comfortable contemporary homes that dapple the rolling hills of the Northwest Corner, are less visible “homes,” makeshift residences and sleeping nooks where members of our community–those living in a state of chronic homelessness–hide away from the cold and the wind. Some are homeless as a result of a struggle with opioid addiction, some with untreated mental or physical medical conditions, many because they cannot afford to pay for housing, food, and medication on a minimum-wage salary.
More than 33,000 people, including 13,000 children, experience homelessness over the course of a year in Connecticut. The chronically homeless, those who have experienced homelessness four or more times in the past three years, make up about 10 percent of Connecticut’s homeless population. In our Northwest corner, 30 percent of those experiencing homelessness are chronically homeless. Many more experience less frequent episodes of homelessness. At last count, there were 189 homeless people living in Litchfield, including families with young children.
No Place to Go
In 2011, there were 156 homeless people in Litchfield County, 30 percent of them chronically homeless, meaning they had experienced homelessness four or more times in three years. These members of our community, including veterans, and single-parents with young children, hunkered down in tents in the woods close to town or “couch surfed,” staying with friends for a night and then moving on. With no place to go during the day to escape the elements, they gathered at libraries, coffee shops, and businesses to stay warm.
“There was no central daytime location to find homeless individuals and families and no central location for them to get help,” said Nancy Cannavo, of Charlotte Hungerford Hospital and New Beginnings of Northwest Hills Litchfield County.
“Once the local shelters were closed each morning, those who had stayed there the night before left for the day, and it was not feasible for service providers to work nights when those needing shelter returned.”
Services providers, including social services, mental and physical health services, job-placement and housing-assistance programs that worked to help the homeless, were spread throughout Northwest Corner towns. Many experiencing or at risk for homelessness did not know where to look for help, and service providers often had difficulty finding and keeping in touch with those who could benefit from their services.
New Beginnings of Northwest Hills Litchfield County, a collaborative of more than 30 social service agencies, set out to change that. In September 2013, after having collaborated with the Community Foundation to research and write The Plan to End Homelessness in Northwest Connecticut, a report that presents a roadmap for an integrated and strategic approach to ending homelessness systemically by creating a series of goals and objectives that address prevention, housing, services and employment, Nancy Cannavo reached out the Community Foundation.
New Beginnings of Northwest Hills Litchfield County requested a grant to purchase and renovate a building in Torrington to serve as a hub for individuals and families experiencing or at risk of homelessness, a one-stop shop, where those experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness could come and connect with all of the service providers that could help them.
Through a $165,000 grant from the Draper Foundation Fund, New Beginnings purchased and renovated a building at 21 Prospect Street A in Torrington. With additional grants from the Draper Foundation Fund, the Marion Wm. and Alice Edwards Fund and the Northwest Connecticut Philanthropy Fund that supported operational costs and addressed fire codes, the Gathering Place was up and running.
Since opening on April 29, 2015, service providers have helped hundreds of individuals receive the services they need and transition into permanent housing, including 12 individuals who had been living in camping tents in the woods near Main St. in Torrington.
The Way Home
The Gathering Place provides one-stop access to service providers, where individuals and families learn what services they qualify for, and depending on their needs, find shelter at FISH/Friends in Service to Humanity of Northwest Connecticut or the Northwest Connecticut YMCA Winchester Emergency Shelter, apply for housing assistance, and SNAP benefits and/or receive referrals for mental health, substance abuse or medical services. They can also work on resumés, shower, wash clothes, get a haircut and receive job-appropriate clothing. Service providers hold coordinated meetings at the facility and are able to meet with clients in a central location that is easily accessible.
“We see a lot of people who are working and just can’t afford to pay to rent,” said Nancy.
According to Nancy, those who seek help at the Gathering Place often have suffered financial losses. They have been laid off from their jobs or are working, but earning far less than they had been. They are struggling to provide a home, medical care and food for themselves and their children. Some are wrestling with addiction. Some are leaving abusive relationships. Others are ageing out of foster care with no family support. More often than not, they are working, but unable to afford a place to live.
That was the case for a woman who recently came to the Gathering Place for help. She was working but struggling to pay rent and purchase food for her and her children. After making several late rent payments, she was evicted from her apartment. She set up a tent in the woods, the only place she could stay that would be close enough for her to walk to work. Gathering Place service providers were able to help her garner enough resources to put together a security deposit for an apartment near her employer.
“She and her children are now doing very well,” said Nancy. “She is working full time at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, able to afford her apartment and care for her children.”
Another recent client became homeless after suffering a traumatic braininjury as a result of falling into an elevator shaft. A gentle soft-spoken man, Frank Douglas Stephens came to the Gathering Place to wash his clothes and shower. A talented artist, he often sketched pictures while he waited for his clothes to dry. Over several months, service providers worked closely with Frank, helping him obtain permanent housing.
Many of those who now have a home because of the services provided through the Gathering Place return as volunteers. “They [volunteers] received help through the Gathering Place. They are thankful, and self-sufficient, and they want to give back,” said Nancy. “There are many reasons people experience homelessness,” she said.
“With coordinated support, people can get housed. Once housed, they do well. “The Gathering Place plays a critical role in helping homeless people and families get into safe and stable homes, something we would not be able to do without the support of the Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation.”
On December 12, 2013, The Community Foundation, New Beginnings of Northwest Hills Litchfield County, and over ten local and regional nonprofits along with the Office of the Mayor held a press conference announcing a comprehensive plan to end homelessness in Northwest Connecticut.
The Purpose of the Plan is fourfold:
• to dispel misconceptions and myths surrounding homelessness
• to educate the public about all of the consequences of homelessness. While the Plan is primarily a humanitarian effort, there are economic consequences to homelessness for communities in terms of emergency medical services, public safety and law enforcement, shelters and treatment facilities and the overall attractiveness of commercial centers
• to optimize the potential for funding, particularly at the federal and state level as many of these grants now require a plan to be in place for grant eligibility
• to create a roadmap for an integrated and strategic approach to ending homelessness, systematically by creating a series of goals and objectives that address prevention, housing, services and employment
Read the The Plan to End Homelessness in Northwest Connecticut (pdf)