Supportive housing units for homeless youth complete in Meriden

February 21, 2021 01:02AM

By Michael Gagne, Record-Journal staff

MERIDEN — The 12 fully furnished efficiency apartments on the second and third floors of the newly constructed WYSH House on Colony Street are now move-in ready.

Wayne Valaitis, chief executive officer of the Women and Families Center, said the agency received its certificate of occupancy for the WYSH House last month. Since then the agency has been working with the state Department of Housing and the Meriden-Middlesex-Wallingford Coordinated Access Network to set up a system to enable potentially eligible candidates to access the program.

Those potential candidates would be between the ages of 18 and 24. They are youth who are otherwise homeless or unstably housed. By next month, Valaitis and other leadership at the Women and Families Center hope to welcome their first group of WYSH House residents.

Falling numbers, continued concern

A report on youth homelessness and housing instability released by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness recently may be cause for some optimism, as it shows declining numbers in those populations. The report also outlines reasons for leaders, case managers and policymakers to be concerned.

The coalition estimated that statewide around 7,823 youth would experience homelessness or other housing instability over the course of 2020. That figure represented a decline from the same report issued a year prior, when the coalition had estimated 9,303 youth — including minors between 13 and 17 years old, and young adults between 18 to 24 years old — would experience either literal homelessness or other unstable housing that year.

That figure included 2,444 minors under 18 years old who would be unstably housed. CCEH estimated within that number, 696 minors would be literally homeless, according to the coalition’s report. CCEH had gathered those numbers prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Connecticut.

In Meriden, Carissa Conway — director of the Women and Families Center’s Project REACH, which serves young adults — described youth homelessness as something that is incredibly prevalent. Serving unstably housed youth has been part of Project REACH, which provides temporary housing through Robyn’s House.

A precise breakdown of how many local youth may be unstably housed was not available. That’s in part because they can be hard to reach.

“We always talk about homeless young people being transient youth,” Conway said. “They don’t always consider themselves homeless. That’s because even though they may be unstably housed, they have a safe place to stay in that moment.”

Unlike other homeless populations, there are relatively few temporary housing options and programs available to homeless youth.

That is a gap agencies like the Women and Families Center seek to plug.

Large scale projects, like the WYSH House, specifically targeting homeless youth, are a new concept in Connecticut. Valaitis noted that three similar projects in New Haven, Hartford and Manchester have also recently launched over the past six months. Providers like the Women and Families Center will learn more about how to meet the needs of that vulnerable population as those projects continue.Partial view of a room in the Women and Families Center’s WYSH House, for homeless youth, on Colony Street in Meriden. | Dave Zajac, Record-Journal

The WYSH House cost $4.8 million to build. Most of that cost was covered by a $3.5 million state Department of Housing grant. Other funding came via Eversource, which provided a $700,000 tax credit contribution, which was approved by the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority. The remaining cost was covered by a $600,000 low interest loan from the Leviticus Fund, Valaitis said.

Independent living — with support

Sherrie Garner is vice president of operations for DeMarco Management Corporation, which manages the WYSH House’s operations.

Garner noted that most transitional housing developments have targeted other vulnerable populations, including military veterans, adults rehabilitating from substance addictions, families and victims of domestic violence.

Garner also noted the WYSH House is not a type of institutionalized housing.

She said residents are “100% on their own, with that layer of support services as well.”

Garner explained further: “You have to pay your rent, and follow rules and regulations. You have to maintain your apartment. You have to get along with your neighbors. There is a service piece. You have a case manager component. You will receive job readiness, education, guidance and support.”

Youth to be housed there will also learn how to live independently.

“For many young folks this is their first time living on their own. They may not know how to cook a meal or even how to separate their laundry,” Garner said.

For prospective residents, moving into the WYSH House is a multi-step process. Project REACH staff and other service providers will conduct review screenings. After referrals are made, candidates will need to fill out a housing application, including providing paperwork with information including Social Security cards and birth certificates, which WYSH House’s management will review.

Garner, Conway and Valaitis hope to have residents moving in early next month.

Each floor has an open common area, which will serve as a community room. With the pandemic ongoing, though, at least in the early going of the facility, staff are discouraging close socialization.

Meanwhile, the location of the house is “prime,” Garner said, with public transportation, CTown Supermarket and other smaller stores within walking distance.

Surveying causes

The Coalition to End Homelessness surveyed youth who were unstably housed. Through those surveys, the coalition determined that nearly one out of every four youth was homeless due to family conflict. Around 15% of surveyed youth cited unemployment as the cause of their housing instability.

The coalition report identified disparities based on race and sexual orientation within the homeless youth population.

For example, while Black residents account for roughly 12% of the overall population in Connecticut, around 31% of those who reported experiencing housing instability also identified as Black.Wayne Valaitis, chief executive officer of the Women and Families Center, talks about the center’s WYSH House, for homeless youth.

Youth who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or as another sexual orientation other than heterosexual, comprised about 18% of survey respondents. That share represented about a 4% increase over those surveyed the previous year. The coalition, in its findings, reported, “LGBTQ+ youth continue to experience housing insecurity at higher rates than their peers.”

Meriden resident Roy Graham, who serves as Youth Special Projects Coordinator for the coalition, has long sought to address the challenges faced by housing insecure youth.

Graham said unlike chronically homeless adults, youth can often slip through the cracks because they typically don’t meet the criteria of chronic homeless as spelled out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Further, youth “are very resourceful and can move around a lot,” Graham said. “It’s very rare to find a young person who has been homeless for say a year or longer.”

Youth may find short-term shelter, staying with friends and other acquaintances, situations Graham described as “totally unstable.”

Like Graham, Nichelle Hilton, program director of Shelter NOW on St. Casimir Drive, explained it is often difficult for youth who are referred to emergency homeless shelters such as the one she oversees.

Though each individual youth’s situation varies — whether it is family trouble, substance abuse, trauma or mental health issues that led to a housing crisis — it can often be difficult “getting them to grasp the seriousness of their situation,” Hilton said.

The youngest person currently staying at Shelter NOW is 19 years old. A family dispute led to that young person’s shelter referral.

“It’s challenging with the youth. They really don’t do well in shelter. They end up back outside, on the streets, doing what they’ve been doing,” Hilton said. “The hard part with youth is trying to engage them. They’re vulnerable, very vulnerable.”

Youth may get defensive when asked to comply with shelter rules. Or they may downplay the severity of their housing crisis. If a young client is homeless because of his or her inability to hold down a job due to a substance abuse issue, it can be difficult to get that person to acknowledge that problem, Hilton explained.

“How does that affect you when you’re trying to get your life together?” Hilton said. “We’re here to assist you. We will help you. But you have to get up and help yourself as well. Nothing is handed to you.”

She added, “We’ll do our part. But that means you have to meet with our case managers.”

Pandemic’s impact

CCEH’s latest report does not factor in the effect of COVID-19 on youth homeless populations. But Graham believes the pandemic has had an impact: “Especially when it comes to youth who are either LGBTQ or in need of mental health or substance abuse services,” he said. “Because with COVID, folks were not able to get to counseling, peer groups, or mentoring or anything like that in person … They’ve had to find different ways of coping or being able to speak with someone that understands their lifestyle.”

Another effect yet to be measured is the pandemic’s impact on family conflict.

“There has been a rise of family conflict, domestic violence, abuse as well,” Graham said. “You are in the household unit together all the time, more than you would have been normally. There is no outlet for folks to leave, or for them to go see their peers, or see person-to-person counseling. That has been an adverse effect.”

The pandemic has had a positive effect — caseworkers are able to connect with more youth far more easily to assess their situations than in past years.

“We were able to be creative to conduct assessments remotely,” Graham said. “Young people do have access to phones. Where transportation would have been a barrier, now you take transportation out of the equation, because you are able to do the assessment remotely.”

As a result, the rate of no-shows for those assessments has declined considerably.

“Generally the no-show rate would be about 50%. It’s gone down to anywhere from 25 to 30%,” Graham said, adding that being able to conduct more assessments and assist more youth during COVID “has been a plus.”

That increases the likelihood that caseworkers like Graham are able to help divert homeless youth in crisis from challenging situations to more stable housing. CCEH, through its Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project launched in 2018, had been able to help rehouse and divert from emergency shelters some 300 youth over the past two years, Graham explained.

‘We must do better’

In the preface for CCEH’s report, the coalition’s CEO Richard Cho wrote, “It is hard to believe that in our society so many youth face homelessness and housing instability. Adolescence and young adulthood is hard enough without the hardship of not having a place to sleep from night to night. We must do better.”

But, Cho added, there is good news due to endeavors like the Youth Homelessness Demonstration project. “We have the means to provide youth with the services and supports necessary to remain housed. Our hope is that by doing a better job identifying youth in crisis we will be able to connect them with the resources they need.”

Likewise, in Meriden, Valaitis and other local leaders hope the WYSH House will provide those resources for those youth and set them on a path of stability.

“My goal, what I want to see happen, is to help them become independent,” Valaitis said. “We’d like to move them from staying in the WYSH House.”

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