State Pressed On ​“Historic” Homelessness

by | Mar 8, 2024 | Advocacy, Homelessness, In the News

As executive director of New Haven’s Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK) and drop-in center, Steve Werlin has seen firsthand the state’s ​historic” rise in homelessness. He told state legislators about that — to urge them to find extra money this year to help front-line agencies like his save lives and work toward solutions.

He did that at a hearing of the legislature’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Health Agencies, about a bill that would adjust the second year of the current two-year state budget. His written testimony follows; you can watch it in the video here.

Rolling up a mattress before bulldozers come in to demolish a Lamberton Street homeless encampment. Photo by Nora Grace-Flood

 

 

My name is Steve Werlin. I am a resident of New Haven, where I have the honor of serving as Executive Director of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, Inc. (DESK). I offer testimony in support of H.B. 5048, An Act Adjusting the State Budget for the Biennium Ending June 30, 2025.

DESK has been serving unhoused individuals in New Haven for nearly four decades. Today, our day-program for people living on the street — the Downtown Drop-in & Resource Center — serves about 60 people each day. Last program year (ending June 30), the Drop-in Center served more than 1,600 unduplicated individuals, an increase of 44 percent over the previous year.

Connecticut is experiencing an historic rise in the rate of homelessness. Since 2021, the number of people experiencing homelessness has gone up by 14 percent year over year. As of February 13 of this year, there were close to 5,000 people experiencing some form of homelessness in Connecticut, and as of January 29, there were over 940 people sleeping outdoors. At DESK, we have seen that the state of homelessness in Connecticut is exacerbated by the worsening opioid epidemic, making it more dificult for providers to effectively serve the hardest-to-reach individuals — as well as keep them alive long enough to receive services.

These figures are all the more shocking given how far we have fallen. In the ten years leading up to the pandemic, Connecticut did an incredible job housing people. Our Homelessness Response System — built upon well-functioning coordinated access networks — was showcased as a model across the country, particularly after we reduced first Veteran homelessness and then chronic homelessness to functional zero. Those gains are all but forgotten, as we have failed to continue to invest in that Homeless Response System, as well as deeply affordable housing.

The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ programs are critical to Connecticut’s Homeless Response System. The partnership between homeless services providers and mental health services is key to helping people ind safe, secure, affordable supportive housing that ensures success in that home and community. While I am glad to see that the Governor’s budget includes twelve additional DMHAS positions in this version of the budget, we still need annual, sustained funding to ensure that these positions have an impact.

As an organizational member of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness (cceh.org), I am proud to stand with my partners across the state in supporting both the preservation of the $27.76 Million in the DMHAS Housing Supports and Services line item, and the additional request of $20 Million from the legislaturewhich includes the following annualized amounts:

  • ● $5 Million annually for Cold Weather Emergency Response, to keep people from freezing outside and to ensure that every year, every person has a roof over their head.
  • ● $7.4 Million annually to Strengthen Shelter and Outreach, by ensuring front line homeless services staff do not fall into homelessness themselves and can afford to rent at least a modest one bedroom apartment.
  • ● $3.6 Million annually to sustain diversion and Coordinated Access Network hubs, so we can continue to connect people with critical support and resources to resolve their housing crisis.
  • ● $2 Million annually to support and expand the work of Coordinated Access Network Backbone Organizations, which prevent interruptions and maximize performance in a system that responds to the greatest need.
  • ● $2 Million annually for the Flexible Funding Subsidy Pool, which provides cost-effective, short-term, and accountable inancial assistance, including $150,000 in gap funding for youth experiencing homelessness in high school, to bridge income gaps and ensure the success of people striving to secure permanent housing

The $20 million of annual funding that needs to be added to the proposed biennium budget is, in fact, an important cost-saver. The inextricable link between housing and personal health — including opioid use disorder — means that when we keep people housed or get them off the streets, we improve their health outcomes. Housing is healthcare. Housing reduces an individual’s reliance on expensive emergency medical and hospital utilization. These expenses are incurred by the most vulnerable and most income-constrained residents of our communities; and they are paid for by the general public. The $20 million of additional annual funding we are seeking for the biennium budget is a bargain compared to the outrageous costs that get passed on to the taxpayers through emergency services and deferred medical expenses. That is why adding $20 million in homelessness services is not only the moral and ethical decision; it is also the right inancial decision.

In addition to the retention of $27.76 million proposed in DMHAS’s Housing Supports and Services line item, and the requested $20 million increase, I offer here additional requests that will support services for unhoused people and work toward eliminating homelessness altogether:

(1) Increase per capita funding for local health departments so they can effectively respond to the opioid crisis, mental health needs, and the array of infectious diseases that are more prevalent among and result in higher mortality among unhoused people. The current per capita rate is $2.60 per capita for district departments (CGS Sec. 19a-245) and $1.93 per capita for municipal departments (CGS Sec. 19a-207). Increasing the per capita (for the first time in more than 20 years!) to $5.30 will not only address the failure to keep pace with inflation; it will also provide health departments with the appropriate resources to serve those who are most vulnerable in our communities.

(2) Increase the recommended adjustment to DPH’s Needle & Syringe Exchange Program from 2.3 percent to 6.5 percent to address the increased need for syringe service programs (SSP’s) in responding effectively to the opioid crisis. SSP’s provide a critical touchpoint in building connection and trust between injection-drug users and service providers. By increasing the recommended adjustment from $11,886 to $32,605, SSP’s across Connecticut will be better equipped to save lives in both the immediate and long term.

Finally, I would like to express my support for and highlight the reduction of $610,000 in the General Funds portion of the DMHAS budget pertaining to Public Act 23 – 97 which established the Opioid Antagonist Bulk Purchase Fund. This reduction shifts the expense of purchasing opioid antagonists (naloxone) to the Opioid Settlement Fund dollars. Naloxone (or NarcanR) is a proven means for interrupting an opioid overdose and saving a life. At DESK, all staff are trained to identify an opioid overdose and respond by administering naloxone, as we have done no less than eight times in the past year. Moreover, like SSP’s, the distribution of opioid antagonists like naloxone offers a critical touchpoint between people who use drugs and service providers. Like condoms and nicotine gum, these kinds of harm reduction strategies acknowledge in a non-judgemental manner the human element behind risky behavior, and build important connections and trust that will enable people to move toward recovery and greater health and wellbeing.

I have included as an attachment the two-page document produced by CCEH detailing more fully how the requested $20 million of additional annual funding for the Homeles Response System should be allocated. I encourage you to read through this and reach out to CCEH’s CEO, Sarah Fox (sfox@cceh.org), who can address any questions or concerns.

If you have any questions regarding the state of homelessness on the ground, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at swelin@deskct.org or (475) 238‑8557.

Thank you for this opportunity to offer testimony.

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