This story appears as part of the News 8 Investigators multi-part series, ‘Neglected Neighbors,’ on the state of Connecticut’s elderly housing supply. This story is part two of a year-long investigation on this topic. To read and watch part 1, please click here.
Diane* once called her grandfather’s Vernon house home.
“It was nice country,” she recalls. “We lived right across the street from a big giant reservoir. It was pretty. It was nice.” She says it was the home where she was the happiest. But her current one, a room at the Red Roof Inn, doesn’t spark the same response.
“I don’t like being here,” Diane says while sitting on a couch in the motel.
A week before the interview, Diane’s home was at Ellington Housing Authority’s Snipsic Village, a 42-unit elderly housing facility run by the state. Snipsic Village is public housing reserved for those over the age of 62 or the disabled of any age. The mixing of these two groups, the elderly and disabled, traces back to a bill put in place during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure; as part of his New Deal reforms, the Housing Act of 1937 established public housing, and the phrase “elderly families” was defined to include “persons with disabilities.”
This longstanding policy is the reason why 53-year-old Diane qualified to live at Snipsic Village. A car accident left her with a traumatic brain injury when she was 21, and has since been considered disabled by the Social Security Administration. For years, she lived next to 31 elderly residents, and 11 other disabled residents under 62.
“Everybody is being tossed into a place where they don’t belong,” says Dorothea Waite, one of Diane’s former neighbors at Snipsic Village. Over her eight years there, Waite has witnessed the policy of mixing populations negatively impact her elderly and disabled neighbors. Most recently, she has watched it fail Diane.
“It was distraught. Disturbing. How a human person could live like that,” Waite says, of Diane’s living conditions by the time social workers pulled her out to live at a motel. Although her living conditions had worsened over the last year, action was only taken once things progressed to the point of Diane living in her own feces. Months before, when the News 8 Investigators first met her, her apartment was covered in trash and filth.
Designed to be independent living, elderly housing is meant for those who are capable of meeting the terms of the lease. Yet, despite at least four professional cleanings done over the course of a year, Diane’s apartment remained in very poor condition.
Diane’s story is an example of a trend in housing authorities across the state. In 2004, when the state legislature mandated a study of the issue of mixing elderly and disabled populations in elderly housing, researchers found “there may be persons who have been inappropriately placed in a community designed for independent living. There may be individuals who need social support services but either refuse them or are unaware of their need. There may be individuals who may have been receiving services and treatment prior to tenancy but become unable to independently function well later for a variety of reasons.”
For those who may need support, the study also found that the increased social service aspects should not fall upon housing authority managers “who are unlikely to have the qualifications or expertise to provide social services. For these reasons, it is important to separate the functions of building management and social services.”
And the researchers had recommendations to improve this issue: “Program review believes the need to separate these functions underscores the importance of resident service coordinators and the need for better collaboration with social service providers.”
But the News 8 Investigators found that these two recommendations, made not only in 2004, but also in a federal study in 1992, were largely never implemented by the government.
Collaboration with social service providers
The 2004 state study also recommended that the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services train public housing staff, but the most recent record of training the department could locate in a federal public records request made by News 8 took place in 2008 and was not focused specifically on housing authorities.
In 1992, a U.S. Government Accountability Office study made recommendations that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development ask housing authorities to report if they do not have a local mental health provider in their area; to facilitate cooperative agreements for case management services; to require housing authorities to seek out mental health service providers for cooperative agreements; and to assist housing authorities to screen applicants, including those with mental illness.
But at least two of these recommendations were not implemented at all. Two others were partially addressed, according to HUD, by issuing a report with sample cooperative agreements, and sponsoring 20 training sessions on “Nondiscrimination in Public Housing Occupancy.”
Resident Service Coordinators
Resident Service Coordinators are staff members at a housing authority that connect both elderly and disabled residents with services. They are not required to have any formal training in mental health, despite serving that population. The position is funded through either federal or state grants.
The News 8 Investigators found that the state’s funding for the position has been inconsistent. The average amount given to housing authorities from fiscal year 2005 to 2015 is just over $15,000. Housing authorities depend on this grant to fund the salary for the position, yet the small amount results in many resident service coordinators working part-time.
On the federal level, funding for resident service coordinators through the ROSS (Resident Opportunity and Self Sufficiency) program is limited. Funding is not available for additional housing authorities, only ones that have already received the award. This limits the current funding to just three housing authorities in Connecticut: Hartford, Norwalk, and New Haven.
Despite the findings of these studies, officials from both the state and federal government told News 8 that responsibility for assisting residents of elderly housing to find help falls to untrained housing authorities.
For Diane, though, this meant falling through the cracks. She remained in her apartment despite having a social worker, and the housing authority said they had made attempts to find her help.
CHR agency which serves Diane provided News 8 with this statement.
Ellington Housing Authority provided News 8 with this statement.
But for others who may be in similar situations in elderly housing across the state, Diane’s neighbor, Dorothea Waite, hopes that it doesn’t take things getting this bad for them to help.
“I can only hope and pray for the best for Diane, and that means this Diane and all the Dianes.”
*We have chosen to only use Diane’s first name and blur her face in the video piece out of concern for her well-being. However, we believe her story is important as it is indicative of a trend in elderly housing.