It’s summer—time to go on vacation, leave your cares behind, relax. But for the rising number of people in Meriden and across the state who find themselves homeless, summer continues to be a time of worry and stress.
“It’s very scary not knowing where your next place is going to be,” Jonathan Stringer, 31, said.
Stringer has been staying at Shelter NOW, a downtown shelter run by New Opportunities, since June 9th. Before that, he was living with his sister in Waterbury.
Stringer is one of more than 50 residents of the shelter, which has 26 beds for men, 12 beds for single women, and eight rooms for mothers with up to three children.
“We’re full. We’ve been full,” office manager Maria Wagner said recently. “We have waiting lists for all three units.”
Over the past few years, those waiting lists have grown longer and longer, Wagner says.
“I think the worst is the moms with kids,” she said. Many of them have no income or not enough income. When their state assistance runs out, they have nowhere to go.
Often, these families stay with relatives and friends when their money runs out. “If you’re homeless for a long time, you wear out your welcome,” Wagner said.
“Technically, they’re supposed to be gone in 90 days, but we can’t just throw them out on the streets,” she said.
Among those who have exceeded their 90-day limit are a few people who have found work since coming to the shelter, but need to stay longer to save up enough money to pay for a room or an apartment.
A Growing Statewide Problem
Homelessness is on the rise not just in Meriden, but across the state, according to Sarah Zucker, research manager for the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.
According to Zucker:
- In 2011, Connecticut shelters served 15,000 people, including nearly 3,000 children and more than 1,500 youth between the ages of 18 and 24.
- Those numbers reflect a 21 percent increase over the previous year and a 26 percent increase in homeless children.
“The shelters have been maxed out for months upon months—even years,” Zucker said. The number idles at between 100 percent and 106 percent capacity, her records show.
“This is undoubtedly due to the lack of affordable housing in the state,” she adds.
Connecticut has the fifth highest cost of living of all U.S. states. About 119,000 households in the state spend at least half of their total income on housing costs, Zucker explains.
The ‘New Homeless’
Of the vast majority of people who stayed in Connecticut shelters last year, 76 percent were “new homeless,” Zucker said, meaning they experienced their first episode of homelessness. She attributes those numbers to the recession and the difficult economy.
As a higher-income state, Connecticut was slower to go into the recession and is now slower to emerge from it, according to Sharlene Kerelejza, executive director of Meriden-Wallingford Chrysalis. Kerelejza’s program provides emergency shelter and transitional living for women and children coming out of domestic violence situations.
Three years ago, the shelter averaged about 70 percent capacity. “We’re always full now,” she said.
It’s taking longer for families to get out of the shelter and into more permanent housing, she adds. The average shelter stay has grown from 28 days to 66 days over the past three years.
“Folks are really struggling,” Kerelejza said. She cites unemployment and the lack of affordable housing as reasons. More middle-class people are losing their homes and moving into apartments, leaving less room for low-income individuals, Kerelejza says.
Jonathan Stringer has been in and out of shelters for a few years now.
“It’s a humbling experience,” he says.
He spends a good part of his days at CT Works, the state Department of Labor employment agency nearby, looking for a job. So far he has had no luck. He worries about what will happen when his 90 days of shelter run out.
“I fill out applications for every job I’m qualified for,” he told Patch. “All I want is an opportunity.”
Read about Stringer’s day-to-day experiences at Shelter NOW in Part 2 of Meriden Patch’s three-part series on homelessness next week.