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CT emergency housing hotline discontinues 24/7 service as more people are entering homelessness

Rust-Belt Connecticut City Continues To Struggle With Economic Woes
Spencer Platt
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Men cook soup outside of the Waterbury, Conn., tent encampment where they live. Connecticut has seen a 13% increase in people experiencing homelessness, the first increase in almost a decade.

With funding running out, the state’s once 24/7 emergency hotline for people facing housing crises said Monday that it’s cutting back its hours.

United Way’s 211 housing call center will remain open seven days a week but reduce hours from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The change takes effect Tuesday, Nov. 1.

The hotline is a “front door” that connects people in a housing crisis with local providers or the state’s seven coordinated access networks (CANs) for help. Since 2009, the system has helped lower homelessness in Connecticut. But for the first time in almost a decade, the state reported a 13% increase in people experiencing homelessness.

“The volume of people who are self-identifying as facing a housing crisis and are looking for assistance has really gone up very steeply in just the last handful of years alone,” said Lisa Tepper Bates, United Way’s CEO. “What we want to do is concentrate our available resources in those hours so that we can answer every call as quickly as possible.”

United Way reports the housing hotline anticipates call volume for this year to be 176% of the call volume in 2017. Tepper Bates said the housing hotline is seeing 50 calls an hour during peak times. And she acknowledges that with only 12 full-time employees, callers are experiencing extensive wait times. The nonprofit hopes to get to more of those callers during the new hours at the expense of being available at any moment.

Tepper Bates said the housing hotline got additional funding from the state Department of Housing and Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to hire five more full-time employees for at least six months to ease the transition.

She also noted that the line will return to 24/7 service when the state activates its severe cold weather protocol.

But the lack of funding, initially reported on by Hearst Connecticut, has been a point of concern for providers on the ground.

“We’re doing everything we can to work together with our partners, as we have for a decade on this shared project to do the best we can with the resources we have,” Tepper Bates said.

Tepper Bates said United Way had alerted state agencies like the Department of Housing since the beginning of the year that additional COVID relief funds were running out and services were at risk.

“Like many nonprofits, we have additional resources during COVID. We had additional bandwidth that allowed us to respond to a variety of different needs,” Tepper Bates said. “But as the volume was ticking up and the resources for our work had not expanded, there was an additional level of strain. A lot of that, like so many other questions, got shifted because of the work we were all doing during COVID,” she added.

United Way wrote to Gov. Ned Lamont in September and said it was running low on money to staff the housing crisis line 24/7.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Housing said the agency “took prompt action to identify funding to guarantee that there will be no reduction in United Way’s ability to respond during cold weather protocol events.”

“The Department of Housing continues to work with the United Way and other partner nonprofit agencies to thoughtfully improve the state’s housing assistance network to support those who need housing assistance during off-peak times and ensure they will have a place to turn to when they need help,” the agency said.

In order to reserve services for the most vulnerable, United Way will discontinue live call assistance for basic housing support like rental assistance, Section 8 and affordable housing. Information about those resources will remain online.

The housing crisis line will be the only one impacted. United Way’s 211 will continue to provide 24/7 services for basic needs information, suicide prevention and more.

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.