Dawn Parker and ALICE travel all over together, addressing community groups of all kinds but ALICE never says a word. She rests in the background when Dawn, who lives in Chester, speaks and her face remains expressionless, no matter what is said.
Does ALICE have a one-dimensional personality? You better believe it, because ALICE is a flat cutout with no features. In fact, she is just the head and torso of a female figure with a name that reflects an important message. ALICE is an acronym made up of the first letters of the words “Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” and she is a graphic representation of a growing problem, working individuals who contribute to the community, but whose incomes make it impossible for them to find decent, affordable housing.
“ALICE is purposely faceless, because we don’t see the ALICEs in our own communities,” Dawn says. “But they are there in every community.”
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development defines those in need of affordable housing as people paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, overwhelming their ability to pay for other basic necessities. Statistics compiled by United Ways and the federal department of Health and Human Services show that of the 1,835 households in Chester, 482 are defined as ALICE households; of the 2,916 households in Essex, there are 495 defined as ALICE; and of the 1,882 households in Deep River, 508 fall within ALICE guidelines. Overall Connecticut numbers for those in need of affordable housing, according to the two groups collecting statistics, are significantly higher than most other states, numbering one in four households statewide.
Dawn heads the housing committee at the Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force, a volunteer group composed of community leaders, local organizations, and businesses as well as faith-based groups and concerned citizens. The task force’s goal is support for individuals at risk in terms of food, income, and housing in 10 communities: Essex, Chester, Deep River, Killingworth, Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Westbrook, Clinton, and Madison. Patty Dowling, executive director of the Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries, started the task force in 2013.
Affordable housing is targeted at working families whose salaries make it difficult, if not impossible, to live in communities where they have grown up or communities in which they are employed.
“These are people in our own communities, who are working. They are working their tails off, but they are just not making enough money,” Dawn says.
The housing committee’s goals, according to Dawn, is to emphasize the need for affordable housing in all of the towns the Basic Needs Task Force covers by engaging selectmen, members of planning and zoning boards, landlords, builders, and local residents. In cooperation with other local groups, the Task Force has held dinners in 9 of the 10 communities to explain the needs to the general public.
A potluck dinner, co-sponsored by the Killingworth Women’s Organization, is planned for Thursday, May 4 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Killingworth Elementary School’s auxiliary room to learn about that community’s need for affordable housing.
Assistance for people whose incomes fit the ALICE criteria, Dawn emphasizes, can include issues other than basic housing. Individuals as well as community groups are in a position to extend a helping hand.
“Be a compassionate neighbor; pay attention if people, particularly elderly people, have needs; shovel an elderly person’s driveway; mow a lawn for someone,” she says. “If you have a neighbor who has to get to a job, but is always late because she has to wait for a child to get on a school bus, maybe you can volunteer to watch the child until the bus comes.”
Dawn volunteers, as do all the members of the Shoreline Basic Task Force, but housing is also her full-time concern. She works as a project manager for The Connection, a group that finds housing for some of the hardest to place potential tenants, including addicts, ex-convicts, and the chronically homeless.
She explains that current thinking on homelessness focuses on providing living space first and then treating the underlying problems that may have caused the situation. She says that even those most challenging individuals can be placed and with proper services, organized by The Connection, can make a new start.
Getting to know people, she says, is often the key to success. What that means practically is that when Dawn talks about The Connection, often she brings people who have benefited from its services to her presentations to put a human face on the problem.
“Relationships between families and individuals and the community can break down barriers,” she says.
Dawn has deep roots in Chester. One of her grandfathers was a captain on the Chester Ferry and her family once owned a marina in town. Her brothers and sister live in the area and she describes herself as the social director for her extended family, organizing events like their annual Easter egg hunt and decorating a tractor for the parade at Chester Winter Carnivale. This year she also served as fundraising chair of the Carnivale.
On a recent morning, Dawn sat ALICE in a chair of her own at the table at a coffee shop, as she described her work for affordable housing with the Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force. Dawn and ALICE travel so often together in Dawn’s car that she quips she could probably use the HOV lane with the life-size cutout.
Since Dawn, always with ALICE at her side, has started to address different groups about the need for affordable housing, she has observed growing recognition of the problem.
“When I go places now, people will say, ‘Oh, I know about ALICE,’” Dawn says. And, there are people who add something else. “They tell me they were once ALICE themselves, or that they are ALICE now.
To learn more about the Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force or ALICE on the Shoreline, visit the organization’s Facebook page. ALICE on the Shoreline can also be called at 860-388-1988.