WNPR

In Hartford, One Family's Effort to Avoid Homelessness

Jan 21, 2016

Breisha Hilyard's five-year-old daughter began asking last September where they’d sleep each night.

In August, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy announced that the state had effectively ended chronic homelessness among Connecticut veterans. 

Through an initiative known as Zero: 2016, the state is aiming to end all chronic homelessness – the most persistent kind -- by the end of this year

It was also in August that things started to head south for Breisha Hilyard, a young mother of two in Hartford.

While housing advocates briefly celebrated Malloy’s announcement, Hilyard began to skate dangerously close to moving to a shelter. That is the nature of homelessness. The people who experience it bring a host of challenges that even in a state like Connecticut with its increasingly innovative approaches, a family like Hilyard’s can still test a system.

Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness executive director Lisa Tepper Bates likes to call what’s going on in the state’s emergency response housing system a “revolution.”

If you want to see the workings of a revolution up close, look no further than Hilyard. In five months, Hilyard has come into contact with multiple agencies, including – but not limited to – the United Way’s 2-1-1 system, the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Housing, and Hartford’s Center Church, among others.

Breisha Hilyard and her children Jazlynn and Jah-Kii in Hartford.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Hilyard feared that her housing instability would propel the state to remove her children.

In August, Hilyard, the mother of Jazlynn, five, and Jah-Kii, ten months old, put a deposit down on a Hartford apartment. She said the agent stole her $1,100 security deposit, and she has yet to get it back. That $1,100 was everything she had.

Hilyard grew up in East Hampton, and went to school at Conard High in West Hartford.  Neither parent was up to child-rearing, she said, and after a beloved stepfather died, she spent time in foster care. She enrolled in Briarwood College – now Lincoln College of New England for two years – and studied to be a paralegal, but her education was interrupted when she got pregnant with a man she called a “ghost addict,” someone who was adept at hiding his addiction. That was Jazlynn. Jah-Kii came four years later. Neither child’s father, she said, is involved, though one recently contacted her to say he wanted custody of his child. She's not too worried, she said, given the man's past ambivalence.

“This single parent thing is new to me,” she said.

Hilyard earned an LPN certificate at University of St. Joseph, but in the last few months, she quit her LPN work at a hospice and her part-time job at Walmart, while she has toted her children from unstable rental to friends’ apartments and back.

In September, Jazlynn – a precious little girl with a big vocabulary – began asking where they’d sleep each night. One night, the girl asked for a cheeseburger. Hilyard took her last $1.06 and bought a burger off of a McDonald’s dollar menu, ate the bread, and gave the meat to Jazlynn.

“She’s very observant,” said Hilyard. “But you know what? That’s my fault. I already read to her. She’s going to be a handful. I already know that. I saved gift cards from like years ago, and I got her everything she needs. That right there gives her the reason: ‘My mommy’s the best. She’s everything that I need.’”

But the rent came due, and Hilyard confined her crying to night-time showers.

“That way,” she said, “it falls to the floor and nobody can see it.”

“The only thing that gives me hope is my kids."
Breisha Hilyard

Earlier, Hilyard and her family spent time in a shelter – Marshall House, in Hartford – where she met Sarah Ratchford, a Hartford resident who has become a mother hen for the capital’s homeless community. While staying at a Hartford motel, Hilyard ran into Ratchford, who began making phone calls to help her find housing.

Family homelessness presents particular challenges. By some estimates, some 1.6 million U.S. children will experience homelessness this year. From the National Center on Family Homelessness, children who are homeless suffer more health issues – physical and behavioral -- than their housed peers. They do worse in school and are significantly more likely to experience homelessness when they’re older. Keeping children housed is crucial.

As that day turned to night, the two women were on the phone to the United Way program, 211, when a worker suggested calling Department of Families and Children, but Hilyard feared that her housing instability would propel the state to remove her children.

In fact, unless there’s abuse or neglect, DCF tries to keep families together, said Kristina Stevens, DCF administrator of clinical and community consultation and support division. Since 2010, when former State Supreme Court associate justice Joette Katz became commissioner, case managers also focus on addressing a family’s symptoms of poverty, such as housing instability.

“I realize we have a complicated system but it’s not our charge or our interest to come in and severe or separate a family in any way,” said Stevens.

Part of Connecticut’s year-old revolution involves agencies working together at unprecedented levels. Nathan Fox, at Center Church in Hartford, got involved. DCF placed Hilyard and her two children in a temporary apartment in Hartford and she began working with The Connection, a human services and community development organization based in Middletown. With the help of a DCF worker and the promise of aid from the state, Hilyard started looking for a permanent apartment in Middletown.

Diverting people like Hilyard and her children from homeless shelters is key. (Next month, CCEH is offering diversion training to help advocates identify housing solutions that don’t involve shelters.)

This, too, is new. The federal government – in the form of the Department of Housing and Urban Development – requires states to create coordinated systems to avoid shelter placement, said Richard J. Porth, president and CEO of United Way of Connecticut. The state is divided into eight areas, known as Coordinated Access Networks – or CANS.

“We are responding in every case in a way that’s the most appropriate for each individual person or family,” said Porth. “And that really entails big system change.”

“Part of the challenge of what we’re trying to do is build a system, not just put people into a shelter bed and think we’ve done our job,” said Bates. “We are trying to end homelessness. If we were just going to focus on putting people in emergency beds, then we’d be stuck forever where we have been.”

But the system moves slowly sometimes.

“The situation is urgent,” Hilyard said in October. She scraped together money by babysitting, writing resumes, and editing papers for Goodwin College students. But when she got a job at a downtown Hartford call center, her increased income placed her dangerously close to earning too much to receive benefits that could help her find a permanent home.

Breisha Hilyard and her children Jazlynn and Jah-Kii in Hartford.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

Hilyard didn’t know it, but the job was seasonal, and she’s back to scraping by, though she holds onto the dream of a stable home. She wants Jazlynn to never worry whether they’ll eat that day. And she reminds herself that there are people in worse shape than her family.

“You face the issue at hand, and have faith in God – or whoever you believe in – and take it day by day. If you lose, you lose. If you win, you win, but if you lose, you just get back up and try again,” she said.

And then -- just like that on a frigid mid-January day -- she found a place in Hartford, just down the street from where she lives now. She hopes to move in February 1, fingers crossed.

“The only thing that gives me hope is my kids,” Hilyard said, “but hopefully these sweat and tears will all be worth it.”