How Do We End Chronic Homelessness? Ask Connecticut

At the corner of Main Street and Liberty Street in Middletown, Connecticut sits a grand five-story building with big bay windows built in the Colonial Revival style of the early 20th century. It has a storied history as the landmark Arrigoni Hotel, reputed to be have been one of the finest hotels in the state. On May 20, 1996, the old hotel was rehabbed and reborn as Liberty Commons, Connecticut’s first supportive housing development. For two decades the 40 apartments at Liberty Commons have provided safe, affordable homes where tenants – over half of whom were formerly homeless – have access to supportive services they need to stay healthy and housed. For some residents that may mean counseling or medical care, while others may need more basic support such as sticking to a medication schedule or figuring out a monthly budget.

Liberty Commons is thankfully just one of the many supportive housing developments in our state, but 20 years ago it was groundbreaking. It was the first of nine projects financed under the Connecticut Supportive Housing Demonstration Program, the nation’s first statewide initiative to tackle long-term homelessness for people who are confronting disabling health issues, mental health challenges, and/or addiction.

If Liberty’s opening in 1996 marked the beginning of a supportive housing movement in Connecticut, that movement has now brought us to a point where ending chronic homelessness in the state this year now seems entirely possible. According to the Connecticut Counts: 2016 Report on Homelessness in Connecticut, the number of chronically homeless people (those experiencing long-term homelessness and living with severe disabilities) fell 20% in the past year alone, continuing a downward trend since 2014.

What's the story behind Connecticut’s success? And what role did philanthropy play in this process? I’ve been working on housing and homelessness issues for over two decades –  first on the nonprofit side and now in philanthropy – and here’s what I observed.

  1. Join Forces. It all started in 1992 with the development of a partnership between the nonprofit, philanthropic, and public sectors to identify a promising intervention – supportive housing. The model had been tested, but not in mid- or smaller-sized cities. It needed to be adapted to fit a state like Connecticut. And here’s where philanthropy had a key early role to play: national and Connecticut-based foundations supported a nascent but talented intermediary organization, the Corporation for Supportive Housing to apply the lessons learned about creating and operating supportive housing in larger cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco to Connecticut.
  2. Make the Partnership Formal. The Connecticut Supportive Housing Demonstration Program was officially created to finance and test the model. It was the result of a co-funding agreement by the state’s mental health, public health, human service, and housing agencies to support the costs of the housing creation and service supports, and by philanthropy to support nonprofits with skill-building in supportive housing development and service delivery and with project start-up costs. With all of these partners from various sectors, we wanted to ensure that everyone had a clear and distinct role to play and that these roles were known to everyone involved. For example, the service agencies funded and monitored the services; the housing agencies funded and monitored the housing; and the foundations provided the early-stage risk money to get projects to the point where the state would finance them. A simple but crucial decision was to spell out the role for each partner in a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The MOU enabled us to keep the project on track over the long haul, despite changes in agency heads and a new governor. And for foundations, the MOU made it easier for them to get on board since they were sure that state leadership was committed. 

    In the end, these complementary roles ensured there was both money to fund the supportive housing and the capacity to create and operate it.​

  3. Evaluate and Share. One of the most important things we did was to pause and take stock of this new endeavor. The Melville Trust and the state co-funded an independent evaluation of the nine projects that looked at the impact on the tenants, the larger neighborhood, and Medicaid costs. And we made sure that the public knew that these supportive housing units were working! The Corporation for Supportive Housing, advocates, and project sponsors invited neighbors, local and state officials, and the media to open houses where they could tour the apartment complexes. We also distributed copies of the evaluation and fact sheets which generated positive media coverage.
  4. Expand.  Success breeds success. Two subsequent state initiatives expanded the model to serve families (the original projects served only single adults) and operate in 40 communities (up from the original six communities). Philanthropy’s support for predevelopment financing, capacity-building for the providers running the housing, and coordination of interagency efforts was an essential piece of each initiative.
  5. Advocate and Scale. The state continued to hold regular financing rounds to expand the creation of supportive housing throughout Connecticut. This was possible because a strong statewide campaign – Reaching Home  – galvanized public and political will for continued State investment in housing services. Philanthropy continued to play a key role, funding the backbone organization coordinating the effort, the Partnership for Strong Communities.
  6. Target and Focus. In 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness issued Opening Doors, the federal plan to end homelessness in the United States. The plan established a clear goal for communities to end chronic homelessness by 2016. Connecticut rose to the challenge. They prioritized new and existing supportive housing units to serve chronically homeless individuals and are developing a real time list of every person experiencing chronic homelessness in the state. With support from the state and the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, local service providers have developed eight coordinated access networks to ensure that those most medically vulnerable and at risk of harm are given priority for immediate housing.

If someone told me and my colleagues working on this new model that it would take over twenty years to end chronic homelessness, we might have been discouraged. Our neighbors were suffering and the need was immediate. But tenacity paid off, and we are soon to see the ultimate proof of this. Philanthropy’s sustained commitment to supporting every stage of this journey has fueled the gains and optimism and collaborative spirit that have kept this collective effort driving toward zero.

About the author(s)

Executive Director, Melville Charitable Trust