“They were a Sisterhood”: Government Policies Target Transitional Housing in Connecticut
“He came in here through prison, into our transitional housing. I just got an email that he made the Dean’s List with a 4.0. And when he came here, he had no options.” They paused. “That’s not every story, but those are the stories that keep you going.”
Variations of this story, told by a source who asked to remain anonymous because they work with one of the few transitional housing facilities left in Connecticut, are repeated by transitional housing advocates throughout the state. In response to the state’s changing homelessness intervention policies, many transitional housing programs have closed or are restructuring their programs.
One such facility is Catherine’s Place, a women’s-only transitional housing program in Hartford.
The program was a collaboration between St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church and the Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation, a Hartford-based nonprofit. Since 2005, it housed 14 women at a time, guaranteeing them a stable place to stay for one year. Catherine’s Place was part of a recovery track for homeless women, many of whom were overcoming addiction or mental illness.
Trudi Campbell, Director of Volunteer Ministry at the Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry, managed the St. Patrick-St. Anthony’s part of the program.
“We ran a transitional living program, with Mercy Housing and Shelter receiving funding from the state to pay for the staffing, and [St. Patrick-St. Anthony] providing everything else, from utilities to donations of clothing,” she said in an interview with The Politic.
The women stayed in the Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry, next to the church. As a former convent, the center already had residential quarters. Since the church and larger parishioner community covered housing, food, and utilities, the program’s only costs came from their staff—
caseworkers and recovery specialists with Mercy Housing and Shelter. When the state began redirecting funds from transitional housing to other homelessness intervention programs, the state funding—which paid for the staff—stopped.
“That’s the whole reason the program closed,” Campbell said. “There was no money left for staffing.”
Last May, Catherine’s Place left its location on Church Street and was folded into the existing 90-day program at St. Elizabeth’s House, a shelter at Mercy Housing and Shelter.
The story of Catherine’s Place is a common one. States across the country have changed their strategies to respond to a growing body of homelessness research and ever-present budget cuts. National trends show a decrease in funding for transitional housing as funds are redirected toward other homelessness interventions like rapid re-housing.
Transitional housing is, by definition, temporary—most programs guarantee up to two years of housing in community settings, facilitating a recovery process that helps residents access the social services they need. The end goal is for residents to eventually find permanent housing and live independently.
“The idea is that during those two years, you’d get intensive assistance toward the factors that contributed to becoming homeless,” said Josh Leopold, Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute, in an interview with The Politic.
Rapid re-housing, on the other hand, offers immediate financial assistance to keep individuals from becoming homeless. In cases where the individual has already fallen into homelessness, the program works to quickly re-house them in permanent, independent housing within 90 days.
“The goal of [rapid re-housing] is to take individuals in a homeless situation that don’t have any of the barriers of those who need permanent support housing and try to get [them] back into the community by providing short-term subsidies, so they can once again get back on their feet, manage their lives, get a job,” Steve DiLella, Director of Individual and Community Support Programs at the Connecticut Department of Housing, told The Politic.
Lisa Bates, Executive Director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, described the shift towards rapid re-housing.
“HUD moved largely away from transitional housing, and the state of Connecticut has followed the same research and followed suit to take that funding and use it for other types of programs,” she said in an interview with The Politic.
The research Bates referred to includes the Family Options Study, a national study commissioned in 2015 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The study assessed four different types of interventions, two of which focused on transitional housing and community-based rapid re-housing. In the short-term outcomes report, the study found that transitional housing was more expensive and did not hold any tangible advantage over other interventions.
“That study, among others…showed that unfortunately transitional housing, which I think sounds like a good concept, just doesn’t have the strong positive outcome that would justify the relatively expensive cost of such programs,” Bates said.
Using the Family Options Study and similar findings from smaller studies, the Connecticut Department of Housing has shifted its attention to permanent supportive programs and rapid re-housing programs. While the former targets higher need households suffering from long histories of homelessness, the latter serves those in need of more temporary assistance.
“Essentially we have been able to be so successful because instead of managing homelessness, we’re exiting people from homelessness,” Evonne Klein, the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Housing, told The Politic.
For transitional housing advocates, the focus on immediate homelessness can obscure the advantages of transitional housing. Trudi Campbell, the volunteer director of Catherine’s Place, voiced these concerns.
“The sense was that we weren’t ending homelessness in Hartford and, by having transitional housing, it was more an idea that homelessness was being extended, not stopped,” she said.
The move away from transitional housing came as a surprise to the St. Patrick-St. Anthony side of the program.
“Because we weren’t involved in the funding, it wasn’t something we’d known about,” explained Campbell. The program came to a hasty and unexpected end.
“We were given two days’ notice that they were moving out, and there would be no more program,” she said. “These are women in transition, trying to make their lives better. They really were given the raw end of the deal. They didn’t have any time to make plans.”
Mercy Housing and Shelter, who was St. Patrick-St. Anthony’s partner in the administration of Catherine’s Place, had advance notice of the program’s uncertain future, according to Campbell.
“Apparently this had been in the works through the federal government for several years, the federal government was cutting back funds for transitional housing. The state of Connecticut and the housing agency knew about it for several years,” she said.
Catherine’s Place’s sudden closure made for a difficult end to eleven years of close-knit community.
“[The women] weren’t equipped and certainly weren’t given what they were told they would have when they came into the program,” said Campbell. “They were told they’d have a full year of housing and that they would have time to finish whatever training they needed.”
The abrupt end came as a surprise to Joan Gallagher, former Associate Director of Programs at Mercy Housing and Shelter.
“I know it was just a huge challenge for the agency to try to figure out how we keep as many beds open as possible and still be able to provide decent services. I have no idea why it wasn’t a better transition. That shocked me, when I had heard about that, because, SPSA and Mercy, I loved the relationship that we had,” she said. “I think that because things were changing with a whole bunch of the transitional housing program slots at St. Elizabeth, they had to rethink everything.”
Tenesha Grant, Director of Client Services at Mercy Housing and Shelter, described how the organization reacted to the lost funding.
“Our focus shifted to stay in alignment with any other initiatives that are going with the 90-day stay for the women,” she told The Politic. “All the programming requirements from St. Patrick-St. Anthony are still the same, and they have a lot more services on site for them.”
Within two days, Catherine’s Place was folded into the 90-day program of the St. Elizabeth housing facility at Mercy Housing and Shelter.
Transitional housing programs across the state reacted in various ways to the policy shift. Some, like Catherine’s Place, closed down or were folded into another facility soon after funding stopped.
“There is a very small handful of [transitional housing] programs still operating with federal funding,” said Bates. “What the future of those programs will hold is an interesting question.”
The source who works with a still-open transitional housing program in Connecticut described the restructuring process.
“We don’t know how [the shift] will impact it yet, because we’ve never done this,” they said. “We’re going to try the best we can to make sure it works for the men. First and foremost, that what’s it’s about. Some of it is exciting, this new model, some of it we’re nervous about.”
Some of the anxiety stems from shortening individuals’ stay from two years to the 90 days common to rapid re-housing programs.
“We have men who say to us: ‘We need some time to get ourselves back to where we were,’” they shared. “We just have to work harder with them. It’s going to be on us…we had the luxury of time, and we will no longer have that.”
While those involved at the state level point to the many benefits of rapid re-housing in comparison to transitional housing, advocates of transitional housing highlight factors that are harder to quantify in studies—social services integrated with housing assistance and a strong sense of community.
“What I witness firsthand every day…[are] men who learn to live in a community. If you can live in a community with your peers, with staff, you’re more likely to be a success when you go back to the world,” said the source.
Integrating social services with housing aims to solve the problems that first led to homelessness.
“We work on addiction issues: how do you live with each other? How do you live in a community? How do you respect each other? How do you solve conflict?” they continued. “That then carries over to their first job, their interaction now with their family, with their children, with their spouse. I witness every day that it’s about community. That it is somewhat hard to measure at times, but it also spills over into every aspect of their time.”
That sense of community figures prominently in testimony from long-time volunteers at Catherine’s Place. Volunteers there came from all over Connecticut and from 400 different groups. The program built a strong relationship with the larger St. Patrick-St. Anthony community through daily dinners cooked, served, and often shared by volunteers.
“It’s what made this programming unique,” Campbell said. “They sat down and ate dinner, family-style.” This integrated the program into the wider community, bringing a range of people with different backgrounds into contact with each other.
“I cooked like I was cooking for my own family,” said Fran Gilchrist, a St. Patrick-St. Anthony parishioner who volunteered at Catherine’s Place for several years. “I remember a couple of times I was doing something else at the center, and I saw somebody making meals or bringing meals with children, and I thought: how great is that, to have children help you do this for someone less fortunate than yourself?”
Patti Hoppin, another dedicated Catherine’s Place volunteer, also reflected on the many nights spent cooking and then sharing dinner with the women of Catherine’s Place.
“It was encouraged by people who oversaw Catherine’s Place, to create the relationship between resident and volunteer,” she said. “I think it’s really nice in thinking of it in the Catholic tradition of community and communion and baking bread.”
In addition to daily family-style dinners, the evenings at Catherine’s Place were free for activities that fostered the warm community that volunteers referenced. High school English teacher Karen Bing taught a memoir writing class there for three years.
“It started out as a way to give women a voice to express themselves, as a way to be seen,” she told The Politic. “After a while, I started typing up what they wrote. We start a quilt, a story quilt. We hung a dowel and added pages to the story quilt and that hung in their common room.”
The class did not seek to build writing skills for job opportunities but rather tried to build a community.
“The writing came from their heart,” Bing remembered. “It ended up being more social interaction, a sharing. They would share what they felt through their writing. It was absolutely very loving, the way they interacted with each other. If somebody’s writing was particularly sad, the others would pick them up and reassure them.”
This community aspect of transitional housing is lost in rapid re-housing. Rapid re-housing programs do, however, facilitate some access to social services.
“In transitional housing, the idea is to offer to help someone in connecting with mental health resources, benefits they might be entitled to (like SNAP or Medicaid),” said Bates. “In rapid re-housing similarly, our goal is to help provide those connections, so clients can have additional supports they may need.”
But Leopold reported there is typically not the same level of social services in rapid-rehousing as in transitional housing.
“With rapid re-housing, you’re getting some kind of short-term assistance to live in your own rental housing, and you might see the case manager—who probably has between twenty and thirty differently individuals or families they’re assisting—you might see them once a month,” he said.
If community and supportive services distinguish transitional housing from rapid re-housing, then one of rapid re-housing’s benefits is the stability it immediately offers.
“Rapid re-housing is a way we help people exit homelessness to housing that is there from the get go,” said Bates. “If they want to stay there forever, they can.”
“Rapid re-housing is a very modest and temporary subsidy to help people exit homelessness,” she continued. “For many households, that is what they need.”
She describes the idea of leaving homelessness to a lease that is owned not by a program but by the client as an important element of helping people find permanency in housing of their own.
Weighing the benefits of community against those of permanency is a tricky balance. Since studies show that rapid re-housing and transitional housing have comparable success rates, the extent to which the state should consider more intangible factors like community is difficult to determine. But given the two interventions’ similar success, rapid re-housing’s lower expenses allow the state to serve more individuals with the same amount of funding.
“We don’t want to fund programs just to fund programs. We want to fund programs that are effective,” said DiLella.
Catherine’s Place left St. Patrick-St. Anthony last May. With it, the community of 14 women in various stages of recovery also disbanded. Writing teacher Karen Bing reflected on the strength of the community and the support its members got from each other.
“When we were together, there was an incredible sense of community, of support, that the women offered very freely to each other,” she said. “They were there for each other. If somebody was down, there was always someone who was able to draw on their own experiences to help that person not feel isolated, not feel defeated, and to give them hope that they will eventually have the things that they want, which are what everyone wants. They want a safe place. They want their loved ones with them. They want to be loved. They want to have a job. And they were a sisterhood. They were a family.”