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 three of a year-long investigation on this topic. To read and watch part 1, please click here. For part 2, please click here.
A visiting nurse went to see a client living in New London’s George Washington Carver building. But the appointment took a usual turn.
“911, what’s the location of your emergency?” asked the dispatcher.
“202 Colman Street, New London,” the nurse responded. “Two people forced their way into my client’s apartment and said they’re going to hurt him if he asks them to leave.”
“Were you there when they forced their way in?”
“No, but I see this guy every day. He’s mentally ill. These people are taking advantage of him.”
The police weren’t the only ones to respond to the call at the elderly housing complex. New London Housing Authority staff went to the resident’s apartment as well to check on his well-being.
“Is that part of our job? Absolutely not,” former New London Housing Authority executive director Sue Shontell said. “We are so much more than we are landlords.”
This incident took place in September while News 8 was on site to interview Shontell. She has since been fired without cause by the housing authority’s Board of Commissioners. But her experiences and viewpoints remain reflective of many other elderly housing directors we’ve spoken with throughout the state.
Low-income elderly housing is open to people over the age of 62 or people of any age with any disability certified through the Social Security Administration. The policy of mixing these populations can be traced back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. Over time, it has become controversial. That controversy was responded to with government-funded study after study on both the national and state level. Each time, it was found to have growing problems. Recommendations were made yet the News 8 Investigators’ series has been exposing how they were never implemented.
Those recommendations focused on addressing the social service needs of the population living in elderly housing. Housing authorities have been reporting for decades that they have tenants who aren’t capable of living independently. In the 2004 state study on the issue, researchers wrote, “There may be persons who have been inappropriately placed in a community that is 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.”
But the researchers also warned that the responsibility to provide services should not fall to housing authority staff.
“Program review agrees that the growing and changed population requires more of a social service aspect than in the past. As a result, housing authorities may be required to serve as more than landlords. However, the committee agrees that these additional responsibilities should not fall upon housing 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.”
But Shontell, and many others, say that it has.
“There is a huge disconnect between being a policy maker and being the housing authority or any other social service provider because pretty much that’s what we are,” Shontell said.
As Shontell moved up the ranks at the New London Housing Authority, so did the proportion of residents who are disabled under the age of 62. Today, the disabled population outnumbers the elderly in New London’s elderly housing complexes. There’s 106 disabled tenants and 98 elderly tenants currently. That number includes people with all types of disabilities, sometimes with painful memories of an institutionalized past.
“You go from someone who never should have been and is so afraid of the system, to a lot of people who could use more of a system,” Shontell said.
She recalled a few of those tenants. “I’ve gone into people’s apartments and the whole thing has been in string. Writings on the walls, and tinfoil and you just kind of wonder but those are people who’ve fallen through the cracks. And we get quite a few of the people who fall through the cracks.”
And Shontell, among other housing authority directors, warned lawmakers of these people falling through the cracks. 44 percent of housing authorities told officials that the mixing of elderly and disabled was one of their most challenging problems in a 2013 state-funded questionnaire for Malloy’s capital plan.
But Conn.’s Department of Housing Commissioner Evonne Klein questions whether this issue should be a priority.
“When we talk about the issue – and you raise the issue as you have – and I look at the data that we have, it doesn’t really match up. And I don’t know how many folks you’ve spoken to, how many housing authorities you surveyed,” Klein said in an interview with News 8.
We reached out to all the housing authorities with elderly complexes in the state and received responses from 66.
In surveys, housing authorities told us that challenges begin when someone applies for housing. If they have a disability, housing authorities are not allowed to ask what the disability is or if the applicant is capable of living independently because of anti-discrimination laws. One housing authority director told us “we are not only untrained to assist but can’t point in the right direction.”
Most housing authorities rely on local mental health agencies, but some rate them as unhelpful. Budget cuts have also had an impact, said Shontell. “Truly, since the cuts in social services and that sort of thing, it’s harder for people to say I’ll be right there.”
At New London Housing Authority, a memorandum of understanding contract has allowed the housing authority to be one of the few in the state with social workers on site, but Shontell said that the problems remain. “The staff that is on site from Sound Community works until about eight o’clock. People get sick after eight, people have outbursts after eight, they forget to take their nighttime medicine. There you are.”
Another challenge is that residents do not have to accept services if they don’t want to. “Part of this problem is if and when people show up to give services, it is the residents right to say no we don’t want them. So we can’t mandate that they get services in order to preserve their housing. Even though we can all recognize that they need it. And that’s an issue.”
In New London, police responded to the elderly housing addresses at least once every other day based on records from January to September this year.
News 8 obtained written complaints from housing authorities across the state. They tell stories of harassment, stalking, bullying, and threats for both the elderly and the disabled. One tenant tried to run over another in a truck. Some residents have a habit of dumpster diving.
But Commissioner Klein says that her focus remains on making sure that the residents in elderly housing do not face discrimination.
“We’ve heard that a senior may feel threatened by a young disabled resident. Did they do something? There’s a whole host of things – why do they feel threatened? Because they’re standing there?”
And although the studies done on mixing populations have said discrimination could be one of the causes of tension in elderly housing, Shontell believes that focus misses whether or not everyone is getting the help they need.
“It kind of hurts everybody.”