1-call shelter hot line started

Leslie Rovetti | December 29, 2011 | Emergency Shelter; Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut; Homelessness; Covenant Shelter; Mystic Area Shelter & Hospitality; Community Action; CAFCA

Homeless families with children in Stonington, North Stonington and other towns in New London County have a new, easy-to- use system to reach the help they need. Mystic Area Shelter & Hospitality, known as MASH, together with the other three family shelter providers in the county, now provides help to families in urgent need of shelter with just one phone call.

The new unified system began earlier this month. Before that, homeless families had to navigate a patchwork of agencies to find help, said Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of MASH. If one agency or shelter could not help, the family would be bounced to another agency, and potentially another and another - with no real promise of concrete assistance or shelter. In addition, there was no way to track families.

Under the new unified intake system, all New London County social-service agencies are asked to refer calls from families in need of shelter to the United Way's statewide assistance hot line, 2-1-1, which is reachable from any phone in the area. A call specialist at United Way will assess the family's situation, and if the family is literally homeless or will be homeless in 48 hours or less, the call specialist will refer the family for intake with a case manager. The case manager can place the family into an opening at any one of the four family shelters in the County.

Bates said the change came about because a new federal regulation examines homelessness in a community as a whole, instead of agency by agency. To manage the change, MASH, the Thames Valley Council for Community Action, the Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut and the Covenant Shelter in New London began collaborating to create what Bates called "a single front door." The agencies take turns as the case manager, taking information and referring clients to whatever shelter has an opening or best fits the families' needs. The system provides quicker stress release for the families, and the agencies spend less time on the phone. Before the new system went into effect, shelter staff members would spend large amounts of time on the phone with families in need, often explaining that a shelter was full, but still trying to help.

"This is a great improvement," Bates said, describing the former process as "time-consuming and stressful, frustrating to families in need and shelter staff alike."

The change has forced the four agencies to work collaboratively, and in some cases, change their practices.

With the unified system, the New London County family shelters have become the first consortium of homelessness-assistance agencies in the state, Bates said. It's a move that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the primary source of funds for homelessness services, has deemed a best practice. HUD has stated that this is a critical step in reducing and eventually ending homelessness among families and is recommending that communities across the nation take this same step as soon as possible.

A grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut was key in developing the new system.

"The Community Foundation values creative solutions to regional problems. We are pleased to support increased access to shelter for our most vulnerable citizens," said Jennifer O'Brien, program director.

Rovetti, Leslie. The Westerly Sun. "1-call shelter hot line started ". December 29, 2011.