By Doug Maine
While Latinos in Connecticut are overrepresented among clients using the state’s many homeless shelters, staff at the shelters in Hartford and Bridgeport have noticed a new trend. Some families from Puerto Rico head directly to the shelters upon arriving in Connecticut.
“It is not unusual for individuals to come directly from the airport to the shelter, or to do so after staying very temporarily (usually less than one month) with friends or extended family members that encouraged them to relocate,” telling them about the services they could receive in Connecticut, said Heather K. Pilarcik, South Park Inn’s service coordinator.
At South Park Inn, located on Main Street near Park Street, Hartford’s historically Latino hub, out of the 1,222 unique individuals served in 2012, 464 – or 37.9 percent – identified themselves as Hispanic/Latino. Among the Latinos availing themselves of outh Park Inn’s services, Puerto Ricans predominate.
As in Hartford, the staff at Alpha Community Services YMCA in Bridgeport has seen a trend of entire families coming from Puerto Rico, looking for shelter as soon as they arrive.
It’s a potential problem because there’s not enough room for Connecticut’s homeless in its shelters. According to “Portraits of Homelessness in Connecticut,” a report issued by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness in February 2011, in 2010, “shelters have been over capacity (exceeding 100% of available beds, and unable to serve all those in need) during all of 2010 and much of 2009.” (That is the most recent information available on homelessness levels in Connecticut.)
Carmen Colón, Alpha’s executive director, said, “A lot of times your Latino families double-up longer,” in the local family’s housing so that newcomers won’t have to go to shelters as soon, “to the point of even jeopardizing their own housing status,” if the hosts are in a program such as Section 8. In some cases, both the host and guest families can be left homeless.
Portraits of Homelessness also states that Latinos are disproportionately represented among the population served. “While Hispanic/Latino persons represent only 12.3% of the Connecticut population, they comprised 28% of all emergency shelter and 23% of all transitional housing clients. They also tended to be younger. The most common age of Hispanic/Latino emergency shelter clients was between 18-29 years old, while that of Non-Hispanic/Latino clients was 40-49 years old (31%),” the report said.
Alpha operates the state’s largest family shelter, housing 29 families at a time, with more on a waiting list, and is the largest provider of permanent supportive housing in Connecticut, Colón noted. One problem her agency has had is finding social workers who speak Spanish; the pool of qualified candidates is small.
Hernán Bohórquez, program director of Alpha’s Families-in-Transition program, said, “usually, half of our clients are Latino and most of them come from Puerto Rico. There are very few Latinos here (in Bridgeport) from other countries.”
While it is not clear how many people are arriving from Puerto Rico and going to Connecticut directly to shelters, a contributing factor to this trend may be that unemployment on the island is currently at 14 percent. (Unemployment for those under 25 is estimated to be about 28 percent.)
“One of the reasons, I guess, is that they can get benefits here and we are able to connect them to the benefits,” Bohórquez said. “They’re really starting from zero because they don’t know the city, don’t know the language. Some cases are tough because they don’t have a support system in the city.”
Families can stay for 60 to 90 days in Alpha’s shelter, which is not a lot of time to save money to afford housing, Bohórquez said. “And then for the kids it’s a new place and a new culture, and they have the problem of school,” where they may be bullied.
South Park Inn’s emergency shelter can accommodate up to 85 men, women and children per day. It also offers transitional and supportive housing programs for single men.
Spanish-speaking staff is available on all shifts, and the shelter is staffed 24 hours per day with direct care counselors who provide guidance, support, supervision and security. Individual service coordinators meet with each client and arrange for support services, refer clients to appropriate programs, provide encouragement and assist in finding housing.