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Homelessness is on the rise in Connecticut after eight years of downfall

This Thanksgiving, Leroy Jordan is grateful to his friends Ellis Crawford and Reggie Spears.

The two support what Jordan has made his life’s work – helping the people who live on the streets of Stamford.

At this time of year, Crawford and Spears collect coats and jackets for the town’s homeless men, women, and children.

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Jordan, a outreach worker at the Pacific House animal shelter in Stamford, shares with his friends the plight of people who, by the state’s definition, “live in places not intended for human habitation.”

For a person who is chronically homeless, Jordan said, a coat or jacket is a one-time thing. If you don’t have a place to hang it, it’s yours only as long as you wear it.

“They try to travel as light as possible,” said Jordan, a lifelong resident of Stamford who has been an outreach worker for 23 years. “Also, things get lost or stolen or just left lying around. If someone has a new jacket this winter, they most likely won’t have it next winter. You need a new one every year. Having a jacket is really big.”

So Jordan turns to his longtime friends Crawford and Spears — personal trainers and partners at the All American Athletes fitness center on Research Drive — who educate their clients about the need for warm clothing on the road.

“We have good customers. They love to help and make sure people are okay,” Crawford said.

“When it’s cold, we all want to keep someone warm for the night,” Spears said.

Cold is the brutal enemy of the homeless, and the need for shelter is enormous, Jordan said.

“I’ve never seen it so bad,” he said. “I’m working with all the agencies in the state and they’re all saying their numbers have increased tremendously.”

That is reflected in a status report released last month. It showed that homelessness in Connecticut increased 13 percent between 2021 and 2022 after eight years of decline.

According to the report, several factors contributed to the increase in homelessness. These include ongoing economic fallout from the pandemic; skyrocketing costs for rent, groceries and other necessities; and a severe housing shortage — Connecticut’s rental vacancy rates are among the lowest in the United States

The housing shortage is so severe that people can’t find housing on Section 8 vouchers, a federal program that subsidizes rents in the private market for low-income families, the elderly and the disabled, Jordan said.

“I know four women and three single men with Section 8 vouchers who can’t find a place — and Section 8 is federal money that goes straight to the landlord,” Jordan said.

There’s another difficulty, Jordan said.

In Connecticut, the only way homeless people can access help is by calling 2-1-1 or using the online equivalent. Housing specialists who answer the hotline assess callers’ situation and refer them to providers in their area or to one of the country’s seven coordinated access networks.

“You can’t just go to an emergency shelter anymore if you need a bed,” Jordan said. “You have to make a call through 2-1-1.”

The 2-1-1 specialists will review the caller’s situation with a visiting agent like Jordan. Once that happens, the caller is “activated,” Jordan said.

“But that doesn’t mean the person is going to an animal shelter. That means they’ll be put on a waiting list because all the shelters are full,” he said.

At Stamford, the waiting list this week includes about 50 women, 65 to 70 men and 35 families, Jordan said.

“What touches and hurts me is seeing families out there,” he said.

People are sleeping in cars, at Stamford train station, at Cummings Beach and at downtown bus stops, he said.

“Some people just walk around,” Jordan said. “Some homeless women take their children to relatives to sleep, but there is no place for the mother, so she sleeps in her car. Then she picks up her children in the morning and takes them to school.”

He found three men sleeping in the corner of a decorative brick wall that marks the entrance to a park, Jordan said.

“It was cold. I mean, it was hypothermic. My face froze in the few minutes that I spoke to them,” Jordan said. “A guy turned to me and I was like, ‘How’s your buddy? Is he alive?’ The guy said, ‘We’re fine.’ They didn’t want to come to the shelter. I don’t know how they do that.”

Two men in their 50s, natives of Poland, have been sleeping on the streets of Stamford for a decade, Jordan said.

“They live on one of the beaches. They refuse to come to the shelter even as they get older and their bodies break down,” Jordan said. “I heard from one of them recently. He said he would come in. When he got here his whole body was shaking. We had to call 911. He’s still in the hospital.”

About 85 percent of homeless people “are dealing with mental health problems or substance abuse,” Jordan said. “The rest just went through tough times — they lost their jobs or they’re going through a divorce settlement.”

The system is unfriendly to those seeking shelter, Jordan said.

The 2-1-1 hotline is blocked, he said. A call can last two hours, with most of the time spent on hold, he said.

“The program was not set up to deal with this size of a homeless population. It was set up to release information,” Jordan said. “What happens is people get the information and they call 2-1-1 back to say, ‘But what do we do now? We’re homeless.’”

According to 2-1-1 website, the top service requests from last November through this November were 29.5 percent for an emergency shelter bed, 27.5 percent for low-cost housing, and 20 percent for rental assistance.

The hotline takes 1,000 housing-related calls a day, according to the website.

On November 1, as funding for the 2-1-1 program ran out, the state shortened the hours seven days a week from 24-7 to 8 a.m.-4 p.m. But on Nov. 10, Gov. Ned Lamont announced his office would allocate $8.5 million in aid to provide shelter, food and mental health services to the homeless.

Lamont’s office said the state Department of Housing is creating hubs that accept walk-in appointments and receive direct referrals from 2-1-1 workers with the goal of reducing call volume.

Pacific House, one of the largest 67-bed homeless shelters in Fairfield County, is among the hubs, Jordan said.

But that won’t meet needs this winter, said Stamford State Assemblyman David Michel, who worked on homelessness issues during his years at the Connecticut House.

“There is no reason to expect a person on the waiting list to get a bed as that would mean someone leaving the accommodation. Most likely, the person waiting will be living on the streets this winter,” Michel said. “I have a voter, a 70-year-old woman who lives in a van. People like her, who are not that old and don’t have accessibility problems, are much less likely to find a place. This is a bad situation.”

All the more reason to help, said Spears, who was a member of two Greenwich High School football teams, and Crawford, who played basketball, football and baseball at Trinity Catholic High School in Stamford.

Spears said he learned from Jordan that “People don’t get help until they hit rock bottom. The system doesn’t do much to prevent people from reaching the bottom. As soon as they are in an emergency shelter, they get help.”

The situation requires everyone to pitch in, Crawford said.

“We just want to provide whatever help we can,” Crawford said. “We want to make our contribution to society”

Jordan said something has struck him over the years — many Stamford residents believe that homelessness doesn’t exist in Stamford.

“That’s because they don’t see the homeless,” Jordan said, “because a lot of the homeless don’t want anyone to know they’re homeless.”

The goal is that one day everyone with a new jacket will be able to keep it. The way to get there, Jordan said, “is to give everyone a home.”