New Opportunities wins block grant to help formerly homeless

Thursday, April 1, 2010
New Haven Register

Christyna LeComte spent five years wandering the streets of Waterbury homeless. Thanks to federal money, now she is living in her first apartment ever, paying her bills, and trying to be a “productive member of society,” she said. She begged an aldermanic committee not to take that money away.

Her appearance at the hearing may have guaranteed her funding for next year, as both her organization and the controversy-scarred Casa Otoñal narrowly escaped a recommendation that they receive zero dollars for the upcoming fiscal year.

The Board of Alderman’s Joint Committee on Community Development and Human Services settled these funding decisions last night at a City Hall meeting Wednesday night. The hearing was the final chapter of that committee’s one-and-a-half month-long process for divvying up several million dollars of federal money.

Every year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers New Haven organizations and city projects a share of Community Development Block Grants. This year there was more than $7.6 million available for the city, about $350,000 more than last year’s total.

Now that the committee has voted on a suggested list for splitting up the money among more than 70 projects, their recommendations go to the full Board of Aldermen for approval.

LeComte’s plea embodied the sensitive nature of this competitive application process. Many projects intended to help members of New Haven’s most at-risk populations, like LeComte, are denied funding each year.

For example, the committee reversed its decision to fund a project by the Children’s Community Programs of CT (CCPC) after no one from that organization appeared to testify at Wednesday night’s meeting. Members from every organization are required to testify; Wednesday night was the absolute deadline. The CCPC was expecting to receive $16,500 to help former foster-care children secure housing and employment.

“Please don’t take my funding away,” LeComte begged the aldermen. “I can’t afford to live on my own.” She said that she’s been sober for 18 months ad “wants to make a difference in the world.” By showing up to testify, she ensured that the organization New Opportunities will receive $70,5640 to help formerly homeless people stay on track.

Another organization also got lucky: Latino senior housing complex Casa Otoñal, a community institution in the Hill neighborhood, which recently reshuffled its leadership after some accounting mishaps. Click here for a back story.

The organization had originally requested $59,106 to fund after-school and summer programs. The mayor offered $21,220 after the first round of review. But when the aldermen on the committee made initial budget amendments, the organization was left with $0 allocated in the final budget.

In the final round of deliberations, Downtown Alderwoman Bitsie Clark asked why there was no money allocated for Casa. She called it a “very distinguished organization” that has done “unbelievable work” for the city but has recently “fallen on difficult times.” She said it seemed “cruel” to rip funding from the organization when it is down.

Fair Haven Heights Alderwoman Maureen O’Sullivan-Best said that she had made a budget amendment to Casa’s funding based on an unimpressive presentation by one of the organization’s employees. “I don’t think I suggested to cut all the funding, did I?” she asked.

Her proposed cuts combined with other small cuts by other aldermen, including Edgewood Alderman Marcus Paca, left it with no money at all. Paca said that he didn’t think that “they should get anything” because of their murky financial status and since the organization is being investigated

An amendment proposed by Hill Alderwoman Dolores Colón added $5,000 to Casa’s budget at the last minute. The money came out of the funds intended for the CCPC. The committee seemed eager to finalize the budget, even though it would inevitably create some discontent.

“Somebody’s gonna go home unhappy,” noted Board President Carl Goldfield. 

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