Riding on a city bus, Cynthia Keller got a phone call. She started weeping. After four years of homelessness, she learned she would finally have a place of her own.
The phone call announcing a “golden ticket”—or housing voucher—came thanks to a massive coordinated push by a network of city homelessness agencies.
Keller and 97 other homeless people have received golden tickets of their own, as part of the city’s “100-day challenge” to house 75 percent of the city’s chronically homeless. Of those 98, 26 have already been housed.
As the clock winds down to the July 30 challenge deadline, homelessness agencies are pushing to meet the goal of 107 people housed. With the help of staff at the Columbus House, and with her voucher in hand, Keller (pictured above) is looking at apartments and aims to move in as soon as possible.
If organizers meet their 100-day goal, a new challenge will loom—how to make permanent the new systems they’ve developed. Since April, the city’s homelessness-services providers have shared resources, staff, and information in an unprecedented fashion, shortening the process of housing people from years to weeks. They’ll have to figure out how to keep that momentum going once they pass the 100-day finish line.
Keller said she has been trying to secure housing assistance for years and has met only delays and denials. So when she filled out one more form a few weeks ago, she didn’t expect anything to come of it. And then she got the phone call.
Fear & Longing
Keller, who’s 46, grew up in Trumbull. She became homeless four years ago after getting hooked on pills, then heroin.
It’s miserable to be without a home, said Keller.
“The feeling of not being wanted—it’s the worst feeling in the world,” she said. “Having to walk around all day ... the fear of being outside by yourself in the nighttime.”
She said she has slept outside, in shelters, at friends’ houses, and in abandoned buildings where she feared for her safety with people doing drugs nearby.
“They get crazy when they get high,” she said. “Most of the time you don’t sleep because you’re afraid to close your eyes.”
Keller said she has worked off and on as a waitress. Three years ago, she managed to get an apartment, but could only afford to keep it for four months. “I fooled myself,” she said. “I figured I could do this.”
Keller said she’s been drug-free for over a year, and is working to secure custody of her 11-year-old daughter, who lives with her grandmother.
Since March, she’s been staying in Martha’s Place, a homeless shelter in town. A staff member there helped her fill out a VI-SPDAT, a survey that the 100-day challenge has been using to assess the relative vulnerability of individual homeless people in New Haven.
“I didn’t think anything was going to come of it,” Keller said. “I’ve been turned down so long.”
The VI-SPDAT indicated that Keller was vulnerable enough to be among the people tapped for housing during the 100-day challenge. Columbus House’s David McCarthy (at left in photo) was assigned to work with Keller to find her a home.
McCarthy called Keller while she was waitressing one day and told her she should start getting her documents together—birth certificate, social security card, driver’s license. Keller set to work immediately, taking the train to Greenwich to get a copy of her birth certificate.
Then, while Keller was riding the bus, McCarthy called with some good news: Her housing voucher (pictured)—what he calls a “golden ticket”—had come through.
“He said, ‘You’re approved. They approved you.”
She was officially offered a housing voucher through Shelter Plus Care, a state and federal program that subsidizes housing for the homeless and disabled. The voucher promises that Shelter Plus Care will pay $980 in rent, to any landlord who takes Keller as a tenant.
“I feel like I won the lottery,” she said. “Tears were coming down my face.”
With McCarthy’s help, Keller has started looking at apartments. She said she’d like to live in Westville. She said she wants “something clean, something homey.”
“This is the start of it,” said McCarthy. Now that all the city’s agencies are working together, “people like Cynthia are being housed in record time.”
“The process was astounding to watch,” he said.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Amy Casavina Hall, a vice president at the United Way, which is a partner and funder in the 100-day challenge.
“The 100-day challenge established the urgency” from funders to front-line workers, she said. It gave people the freedom to look beyond established practices and invent new ways to work together.
Part of the challenge going forward will be “figuring out how we sustain this long-term,” Hall said.
The ultimate goal is to get to “functional zero,” to have systems in place so that people don’t stay homeless for years, that New Haven has no chronically homeless, only people who need short-term help.
Meanwhile, the 100-day challenge still has to find homes for 72 people who now have vouchers, plus 10 who don’t yet have vouchers. Organizers are still looking for landlords with vacant one-bedroom units and efficiencies.
Keller said she plans to look at more apartments this week, to finally find a new home for herself and live without fear.