Young people from across Middlesex County are expected to brave January’s cold and sleep outdoors tonight, as part of a program to educate people about the existence and conditions of homelessness in the community.
The third annual Homelessness Awareness Discussion and Sleep-Out will kick off at 6 p.m. on Main Street in Middletown. The event is sponsored by 10 faith-based organizations in collaboration with the Middlesex County Coalition on Housing and Homelessness (MCCHH), which is implementing a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in the county.
Following an opening prayer by South Congregational Church’s Rev. Marybeth Marshall and her intern, Marilyn Kendrix, Middletown Mayor Dan Drew will address the participants and then the young people will visit three stations in the church; one to learn about the county’s Ten Year Plan, a second to discuss connecting faith with homelessness and a third where the teens will examine their perceptions of who the homeless are and discuss what they would carry if they had to squeeze all their possessions into a backpack.
The teens will hear first-hand about the ordeal of homelessness from several volunteers who are currently or formerly homeless and be able to ask questions. After this, a simple soup and bread dinner will be served and Pastor Dale Azevedo of the will offer a closing prayer.
This is the second year that young people from St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Chester are participating in the sleep-out and last year the experience opened the eyes of many of the participants. “The biggest thing they take away is that these homeless people are real; they are just like them,” said Jim Tabor, youth ministry coordinator for St. Joseph’s, which this year will have 10 teens joining thesleep-out. “There were circumstances that drove them to homelessness; some within their control and some not. And they learn just how difficult homelessness is.”
Youth participants then will disperse to their home churches to spend the night outside. In the past, some of them have chosen to sleep in their cars without heat, build cardboard shelters or just spread their sleeping bags on tarps on the frozen ground.
Youth will be sleeping out near churches in Middletown, Middlefield, Chester, Deep River, Cromwell, and Old Saybrook. More than 90 students are expected to participate.
Despite some positive signs, homelessness in Middlesex County increased from 2010 to 2011, due largely to the ongoing recession, and is affecting new segments of the population. According to figures from January 2011, there were 248 people including 159 single adults and 37 families with 52 children in Middlesex County experiencing homelessness, a 15 percent increase over 2010.
Out of the 248 homeless people, 43 percent had never been homeless before. In Middlesex County, almost half –43 percent -- of adults in families cited domestic violence as a contributing cause of homelessness, while 25 percent of families reported rent problems or eviction as the reason they left their last residence. Ten percent of the total included chronically homeless people -- adults with disabling conditions who had been homeless for a year or more or who had at least four episodes of homelessness during the past three years. The remaining 90 percent experienced situational homelessness caused by a crisis such as job loss, foreclosure or illness and typically return to permanent housing within 30 days of becoming homeless.
The Middlesex County Coalition on Housing and Homelessness was formed in late 2007 to execute the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. Over the past year, 56 “Housing First” supportive housing units were created to house formerly chronically-homeless individuals and 170 households (including more than 230 children) have been helped through the flexible homelessness prevention fund.
Through the creation of permanent supportive housing, the operation of a Homelessness Prevention Fund, the development of outreach and education programs to help homeless people find and retain jobs, and improving coordination of services for the homeless, the Coalition is dedicated to achieving its goal of “An End In Ten”— eradicating the tragedy of homelessness from our communities by 2018.