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01/20/2021 07:45 AM

Grant Allows Women & Family Life Center to Put Renewed Focus on the Plight of Working Poor

The Women & Family Life Center (WFLC) recently added a full-time specialist position whose purpose is to begin reaching out to offer help and services to people in the area before they lose their housing or other basic necessities. This position is relatively unique around the state, as the reality of this long-simmering crisis begins to sink in.

What the community thinks homelessness looks like is important. News channels and other media often use images of cramped shelters, people with signs on the side of the highway, urban tents or encampments, or someone pushing a cart full of bottles along the sidewalk. All these images are rarely, if ever, seen in Guilford.

But poverty and insecurity—families who are one or two bad weeks from losing their housing, teetering on the edge of desperation—is anything but rare here, according to WFLC Director Meghan Scanlon, even if many residents don’t see it, with almost 30 percent of the town’s population categorized as working poor.

“If anything happens in terms of a financial impact, whether it’s the car breaking, the refrigerator breaking, anything, they’re not in a position where they can absorb that unexpected cost,” Scanlon said. “It’s a problem people think is mostly in the cities, but it’s actually on the rise in terms of other regions.”

The position was funded by a Small Cities block grant and a partnership with United Way and the Beth-El center in Milford.

As the crisis has been “amplified exponentially” by the COVID-related struggles, Beth-El Executive Director Jennifer Paradis said this kind of housing insecurity is often ignored because it doesn’t fit into people’s expectations or stereotypes.

“Thirty-eight percent of the state has a problem every single month paying child care, transportation, education, health care, and housing together,” Paradis said. “Thirty-eight percent is not a COVID number.”

That kind of data has not been widely disseminated, according to Scanlon and Paradis, with more of a focus on the higher-risk populations and those already chronically homeless.

Beth-El, which had offered a 34-bed homeless shelter but has since moved to putting people in motels, has a waiting list for that program, according to Paradis. Preventing that 38 percent of people on the brink from needing those kinds of services is a matter of necessity, with crisis housing already dangerously overstretched.

United Way uses the acronym ALICE, which stands for “asset-limited, income-constrained, employed,” to refer to these families. Because most of them are still by some measures keeping their heads above water, they might not qualify for certain government or community programs that are available to those who are unemployed or homeless.

This demographic has grown, somewhat invisibly, for decades, according to Paradis, even as traditional homeless populations have shrank. COVID has pushed the burgeoning crisis to the precipice, with tens of thousands of families hovering just at the edge losing everything.

“Looking at just the baseline information, it’s extraordinarily scary,” said Paradis. “I used to be afraid of saying that word, ‘scary.’ But no, we’re scared.”

Tabby Brown is the staffer taking this new position. Previously working with the Community Dining Room in Branford, she is now tasked with covering an area from Milford to Guilford, attempting to identify these ALICE families and prevent from losing hard-to-recover assets like housing or vehicles, or find ways to move them from less than idea living arrangements like motels to more stable, secure situations.

“Diversion is one of those things we can start working on right from the get-go,” Brown said. “Diversion is really about the long term...I think on our side of it we’re looking at diversion as, we want to head it off before they get to the door of [crisis].”

The state 211 hotline, which connects people with homeless shelters, food stamp benefits, and even child care, will only serve individuals who are 48 hours from being evicted or losing their domicile, or two weeks out for families, according to Brown. People who don’t fall into this level of need often have nowhere to turn, even when their living arrangements and income are incredibly precarious.

“There was a very minimal, I guess no system, fragments of a system...for those folks who are housing insecure and who are really trying to balance their way through a housing transition or securing other housing,” Paradis said.

Brown can sometimes provide first month and security deposits for families to get a rental apartment or room, she said, a monetary barrier sometimes in the thousands of dollars that can prevent a family who might otherwise be able to afford it. She can also help mediate landlord-tenant issues, and even find temporary homes for pets while families transition their housing.

Despite its reputation as being a relatively affluent area, Guilford and the Connecticut shoreline desperately need these kinds of services, according to Scanlon, even more so during the pandemic.

“We have a lot of families who can’t sustain a house or an apartment, but they’re moving into a motel and paying for a motel, but they can’t afford anything else,” she said. “They’re invisible, but they are there. It’s really starting to stand out. They are starting to call, [and] they’re not considered an imminent risk or literally homeless because they can pay the motel fee on their own, but really, they’re at imminent risk.”

“They will never get out of that situation,” Brown added.

A lot of these people are single parents, and are disproportionately made up of LGBTQ people as well as Black and Hispanic families, according to Paradis. Brown said a lot of people she works with are grandparents raising their grandchildren, with parents out of the picture, who are looking for childcare resources as well as housing.

All of this is exacerbated by a lack of affordable housing, something with which WFLC has been dealing for years, Scanlon said, and is a particular problem along the shoreline.

Paradis also cited wages, with a majority of the ALICE families struggling with the lack of a livable hourly wage around the state. Many of them are working more than one job, Brown said, and still are right at the edge of homelessness.

Apart from connecting individuals to these resources, Scanlon and Paradis said their greater mission is to bring awareness to this demographic and address all the underlying causes, from a lack of affordable housing in much of the state to wages and health care, education and child care.

Scanlon specifically praised First Selectman Matt Hoey and the Town of Guilford for spending the time and energy to apply for the grant, as non-profits like the WFLC and Beth-El cannot access the money without municipal sponsorship. Hoey said at a Board of Selectmen meeting this month that the town has received additional funding from the same grant, and is also reimbursed on training costs and some town staff work around the initiative.

But it will take a commitment across the board, focusing on everything from building more affordable housing to removing barriers from health care, as well as simply naming and recognizing the growing crisis, to prevent many residents from falling through the cracks even after the pandemic is over.

“We’d like to see this population of people spoken for,” Paradis said. “And I think we’re starting to do that, and that’s something that grows with time and with follow-up. That’s a big part of it—you’ve got to show up, make noise, and follow-up.”