By LISA CAPOBIANCO
For many communities nationwide, homelessness can take on different forms. Whether individuals or families become evicted and lose a job or get addicted to drugs and alcohol, homelessness can happen under a number of circumstances.
In Bristol, the picture of homelessness has not yet been painted completely. Furthermore, the question of how to help those without a home has not been answered completely either. That’s why the United Way of West Central Connecticut recently joined a number of local organizations, civic groups, city staff, and other individuals to study the issue of homelessness further in Bristol.
From representatives of Bristol Community Organization and Bristol Youth Services to St. Vincent DePaul to Bristol Housing Authority, many individuals in the city form the Ending Homelessness Task Group, working together to address a problem that cannot be solved on its own.
Many of the organizations involved in the group have either worked with homeless clients or systems that involve homelessness. Other members also offer knowledge and facilitation skills, including United Way and the Main Street Community Foundation
Donna Osuch, president and CPO of United Way of West Central Connecticut, said the long-term goal is to develop a ten-year plan to end homelessness, which could potentially bring in federal funds to help tackle the issue.
“The two goals of the committee right now are to better understand who is homeless and why people are homeless right now…and to create a plan for some of the urgent needs of people, especially heading into this winter,” said Osuch, adding the task group is concerned about homeless individuals having a safe and warm place during the winter.
Osuch said she hopes homelessness is a temporary state for people, and is not necessarily their fault, as many factors can cause the issue, such as the loss of a job or a fire.
“It’s a complex issue, a complex problem,” said Osuch, adding that stereotypes of homelessness still exist in the community. “Nobody…wants to be homeless—they want the same American dream everyone else wants, but something got in the way of that, usually it’s totally out of their control.”
Eileen McNulty, director of Youth & Community Services who also serves on the Task Group, said many families were displaced for a number of different reasons. She said the different needs people have are very complex.
“In order to ask for the resources, we need to know what the need is,” said McNulty, adding how other communities like Torrington have studied the issue of homelessness.
Osuch said the task group formed after months ago when the Youth and Community Services Office saw an increase in the number of people who were either homeless or being displaced by evictions, fires, or condemnations. Feeling overwhelmed by the case load it was handling at the time, the office sought help.
The Task Group further formed as a subcommittee under the Bristol Sub-Continuum of Care, which serves under the larger umbrella of the larger Continuum of Care, a structure that brings community agencies and organizations together that serve homeless people and to develop the services needed to end homeless, said Phillip Lysiak, executive director of St. Vincent DePaul Mission of Bristol, Inc.
Osuch said the task group formed to assess who really is homeless in the community, and the current status of homelessness in Bristol.
“We weren’t having in-depth dialogue on what [the crisis] meant and to address it, what we could do differently,” said Osuch. “We suggested that a subcommittee form of the Continuum of Care to…address the immediate crisis, especially for this winter.”
McNulty said different categories of homelessness exist, such as chronic, imminent, and literal.
“There are people who all of a sudden become literally homeless, and then there are people who are imminently homeless [who may have] gotten notice to quit or they already had to leave their apartment, but doubled up with a friend who took them in, but they can’t stay with that friend,” said McNulty, adding that these individuals may face barriers that make it difficult to receive housing, such as criminal records and substance abuse.
Currently, the task group is collecting data through a “homelessness survey form” to gain a better sense of who is homeless in Bristol and what homelessness looks like. Over the past 30 days or so, different organizations have gathered the data and completed the survey, which looks for information regarding the homelessness status, duration/frequency of homelessness, and the cause of homelessness to name a few.
During a recent meeting held last Tuesday, the task group reviewed a pool of data that served as a “preliminary count” of homeless people on the street (not living in transitional shelters).
About five agencies have collected data from the end of September to the end of October. For instance, Bristol Youth and Community Services reported 55 homeless clients served during that time frame. McNulty said nine of 55 clients were children, and the Bristol Board of Education logged 23 children. Many of the clients counted in the data also used other agencies, said McNulty. In total, 135 homeless individuals (among five agencies) have been counted in Bristol for one month. For the Task Group, the data serves as a “snapshot” of what homelessness looks like in Bristol to date, as these numbers are subject to change. The task group plans to continue collecting more data from other local organizations, such as Wheeler Clinic.
After meeting with people who were homeless, Rose Bourgoin, who formerly worked at BCO, said the community still has many misconceptions of homelessness, which most people find to be an issue that does not really exist.
Bourgoin added that many of the homeless people are living outside because of illness, and mental health or substance abuse issues.
“There’s a need for the city of Bristol to really step up [to help these individuals] get permanent housing,” said Bourgoin, adding how ‘mind-boggling’ it feels to see the way these individuals are living. “When I started the survey, I already knew there was a tremendous amount of homeless people living in the city, not housed…and especially in the spring time and summer time, living outside in a tent or in the woods.”
McNulty said the data also includes people who were “literally homeless” living on the street or in the woods, as well as those were “imminently homeless,” doubled up or in a shelter.
“For the people who were literally homeless, we heard about encampments and tents—they do exist,” said McNulty, adding that those individuals living in tents are now starting to disperse by doubling up with other people or finding a home.
“People who have chronic substance abuse—it makes it difficult for them to choose between wanting to be in a house and maintaining a job [and] their addiction,” said McNulty.
By LISA CAPOBIANCO