For decades, finding a bed in a shelter and a pathway to an apartment depended on the perseverance and grit of homeless men and women.
It was always about getting in through a figurative side door, about being a savvy enough self-advocate. It was every person for him or herself.
Not anymore. Connecticut is one year into a sea change, the biggest transformation of emergency housing in perhaps 40 years.
Now, everybody must call 211 for a bed, and to get assessed for housing. Like 911 for emergencies, 211 is the portal to help in a housing crisis.
And the exit from the shelter is just as important as the entrance, advocates say. Never has a shelter stay been so closely tied to a path to more stable housing. The idea is that a person shouldn't leave a shelter without being better equipped to find an apartment.
The new method turns on something called a "vulnerability index" — a plotting of a person's mental and physical health and most pressing needs. The score determines the level of housing assistance a person gets.
"I feel much more confident that I'm finding the person with the greatest, most urgent need for housing," said David Gonzalez Rice, housing support manager for the New London Homeless and Hospitality Center.
This element — the routine and detailed assessment of homeless people — never existed before on a statewide scale.
The approach is still forming, and there are kinks. Wait times between the 211 call and the vulnerability assessment are still too long in Hartford and a few other areas with the highest numbers of homeless people. But there is also early evidence of success. By some measures, between 10 and 15 percent more formerly homeless people received housing in 2015 than in 2013.
With the feds pushing hard for shorter shelter stays, and in some cases tying funding to performance, Connecticut and other states are trying to arrange housing for people in 30 to 60 days.
None of the state's eight regions, which follow county lines, is consistently reaching that goal — not even New London County, which is the most efficient and has been doing it the longest. The Rev. Cathy Zall, who runs the New London Homeless and Hospitality Center, piloted the new 211 approach beginning in 2012, before it went statewide a year ago.
Zall said the regions have to keep pushing to shorten wait times for assessments and ensure that housing programs are ready to take people from the waiting lists when their turn comes up.
Emergency housing is among the most human of endeavors. It doesn't fit neatly into a formula, and some people still drift outside the reach of the safety net. And there is never quite enough rental assistance and supportive housing to help all the people who qualify.
But Zall and other advocates say that calling 211, going through the vulnerability size-up, and then getting placed on a more meaningful, prioritized waiting list for housing — all new steps — has made for a fairer system. It's one that can reach people who may have been beaten down by the old hustle and could no longer advocate for themselves.
"For years, it was get in line and hope for the best, and that was dreadful," said Alison Cunningham, who runs Columbus House in New Haven, that city's largest shelter. "It was really hard on the client — to wait hours until [being] turned away, with no plan."
Now, with a few exceptions, there are no more lines. People have to call from their own phones, or find a phone to use, or get help from a case manager or social worker.
This new approach, with 211 at the front, and a streamlined path to housing at the back, is called "coordinated access." The goal is shorter shelter stays and a surer path to housing assistance.
Emphasis On Housing
In what advocates hope becomes a trend, Middlesex Hospital social workers have been doing the detailed vulnerability assessments of homeless patients when they come into the emergency room. This helps the patients connect more quickly with shelters and with housing programs when they leave the hospital.
Middlesex's Terri DiPietro, director of outpatient services, says there's no medicine like an apartment. She's seen emergency-room visits drop from as many as 45 a year to two or three for some formerly homeless people who found housing, saving tens of thousands of dollars in Medicaid expenses and improving the overall health of the person.
There are obvious kinks in the new method. The Hartford region, with the most homeless people by a wide margin, has waits as long as 20 days between that first call to 211 and the vulnerability assessment interview, and a large number of people simply fail to show up for their appointments.
But monthly reports on the new approach, available on the website of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, do show that Hartford is gradually closing the gap with the other regions.
"It's getting better; wait times for appointments, and wait times on the phone, are getting shorter," said Jose Vega, manager of the Stewart B. McKinney Men's Emergency Shelter in Hartford. "I think 211 is very good. At the beginning, clients were reluctant, but they are getting used to it."
Vega said that "95 percent of the clients are able to call for themselves. For some, with limitations, we help them."
One common refrain The Courant heard while reviewing 211 was, "We're building the plane while we're flying it."
But advocates agree: 211 is here to stay, and represents the future of emergency housing.
When it's very cold outside, and the state has activated its cold-weather protocol, the shelters work a lot like they did before. People can walk into warming centers or overflow shelters and spend the night out of the cold without calling 211.
So nothing about the new system is worse than before, and much of it is better because of the information gathered on each person and the greater cooperation in each region among shelters, subsidized-housing programs, and counseling services. It wasn't uncommon for those groups to compete.
For at least 10 months out of the year, the call to 211 is the way people enter shelters.
Operated by the United Way out of a call center in Rocky Hill, 211 represents an expansion of the venerable Infoline service, which for many years has offered free help to callers needing everything from day care to heating assistance to being shown a way out from under mortgage debt. Homelessness has been added to the mix.
Callers are prompted by 211's menu to press "1" for a personal emergency or "3" for a housing crisis, and then hold for a trained caseworker. The worker takes contact information and helps a person get into a shelter and set up an appointment for a housing assessment. Social workers from shelters can also call on a person's behalf and there's a special number providers can call for quicker service.
Because the 211 center has all of these traditional connections, many people who call believing they need a shelter bed, are actually helped in another way, said the United Way's Wendy Caruso, who directs the training of the caseworkers who handle the calls. For example, a mother who thinks she needs to go to a family shelter because her heat was turned off in her apartment is referred to a fuel-assistance program.
More than half the people who call 211 or who are assessed at shelters are "diverted" to another service.
Catrenna Burrell wasn't diverted. She needed a bed. She couldn't return to her New London apartment because of domestic violence. Her substance abuse problems had flared up again after months in rehab last year. She has a car, but she lost her license and has no registration or insurance. She could sleep in her car, but couldn't drive it. She lost her good-paying job as a medical coder at a New London hospital. Her unemployment compensation ran out, and she said she was not on good terms with family members at that point.
"I was trapped in a vicious circle," said Burrell, 50, formerly of the Waterford area.
At the New London Homeless and Hospitality Center recently, case worker Laura Edelstein, the intake coordinator, called 211 for Burrell, and got her registered at the shelter. Then Edelstein quickly and expertly worked through the new vulnerability assessment form — there's an art to asking questions about personal habits, police contacts and other sensitive topics without embarrassing people. Based on Burrell's mental and medical health, legal issues, and housing history, Edelstein calculated Burrell's score for her placement on the New London area's waiting list for housing assistance.
On a vulnerability scale of 14, 10 and above qualifies a person for the most expensive and intense form of housing help — permanent supportive housing. It provides counseling and an array of other social services along with an apartment.
Burrell scored under 10 and will be referred for rental assistance — help with a security deposit and first month's rent. That is the most common referral, said Edelstein, which means that most people need a good push in the right direction, rather than an all-out rescue. Edelstein also guided Burrell on how she might quickly receive mental-health counseling and get a spot in a transitional housing program for women, a place she can stay until she lands an apartment.
"Now I can look ahead, not back," said Burrell.
A Single Waiting List
Another major new piece is the introduction of a single housing waiting list for each of Connecticut's eight regions. It used to be that every housing provider maintained its own list, and it was possible that a savvy person could get himself or herself on a half-dozen lists or more. But that method excluded the many needy people who weren't advocating for themselves.
The new single regional registries are ordered strictly by the vulnerability of the person. Those who have been living outside the longest, or who are the most mentally or physically ill, are placed higher on the list.
When there were multiple waiting lists in each region, the tendency was for the most sympathetic people to move up on the list the fastest, said Zall.
"I try to love everyone, but some of our people are downright annoying and difficult. But they also may be the neediest," said Zall, adding that the goal, always, is to end the revolving door of chronic homelessness.
Under the new approach, the person who has been sleeping under a bridge would be given a higher priority than someone who been sharing an apartment and lost it because they lost their minimum wage job, even though that person has some kind of a housing track record, said Lisa Tepper Bates, who directs the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.
She said the experience in Connecticut and nationally shows that chronically homeless people respond well if given an opportunity for housing.
Since as many as 70 percent of people who go to homeless shelters return to some form of housing on their own within a few weeks, the focus now is more squarely on the small percentage of chronically homeless, those defined as being homeless for a total of 365 days over the last three years.