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Hotel rooms for homeless during pandemic providing much more than a safe place to sleep

Posted at 11:43 AM, Aug 28, 2020

Kimberly Kinell is used to having a routine. She’s up at 7:30 every morning, makes her coffee, and starts folding up her bed inside the New Haven, Connecticut hotel she’s now living in.

It’s a routine she learned out of necessity while sleeping in a homeless shelter each night and spending her days on the streets.

“We had to go outside and leave the building at 7:30 in the morning and not come back until 4,” said Kinell. “I had a tent on my back and two dogs.”

Addiction kept her from a stable life. Kinell said the loss of her father and her husband hurled her into a battle for sobriety.

“I was drinking,” she said. “Those days were dark, and it ended up putting me in a full-blown depression.”

Her depression was so deep at times, she saw no future of happiness.

“When you’re drinking or under the influence, everything seems dark and everything seems, my life just seemed unlivable,” she described.

But there was a wake-up call, from an unexpected place.

“The dogs made me do the right thing,” said Kinell. “They gave me a point to live, it was like getting up every day because I have to take care of them.”

After watching the dogs struggle to survive without consistent food, she checked into a rehabilitation program.

“I was there for 51 days, and when I got out, there was no place to go,” said Kinell.

Terrified of going back to the life she knew, she got help from the Columbus House emergency shelter.

“They just treated me like I wasn’t garbage, like I wasn’t throw away, brought me into a nice warm bed,” she said.

But once COVID-19 hit, the shelter became just as threatening as the streets.

“One room would hold like 10 people,” she said. “It was very, very touchy in the beginning because you’re just very scared.”

Melinda Mallory, the director of emergency services for Columbus House, said the organization that provides shelter for countless homeless members of the community each night did everything they could to social distance and make hygiene top priority within the shelter.

“We quickly realized despite all the changes we were making inside, we still needed to address the congregate living issue,” said Mallory.

The solution: move everyone relying on the shelter into local hotels. With coordination from the city, Columbus House has been able to get more than 200 homeless people off the streets, out of shelters, and into hotel rooms during the pandemic.

“They’re able to build upon their independent living skills while they’re here," said Mallory. "We’re teaching them community so they’re learning to be good tenants, to be good roommates."

Now, a few months into the program, its success is becoming clear. It started as an effort to stop COVID-19, but it is now starting to look like a natural transition from homelessness to independence.

“I hope that this hotel experience can go on a little longer, because it’s the first step of a person really understanding what it takes to really be out on their own,” said John Sanford, manager of emergency services at Columbus House.

But, not everyone is on board for keeping this new model.

“A lot of people do have the 'not in my neighborhood,' and a lot of landlords that don’t want to rent to our population, so affordable housing is always a challenge for the individuals we serve. But I always say, “if not there, then where?'” said Mallory.

The struggle for affordable housing is too tough to overcome for more than half a million Americans who are homeless.

“We have people who are CNAs, we have people that used to be professors, you just never know when life will happen and when you’ll need a little more assistance,” said Mallory.

For Kinell, having a room she doesn’t need to leave every morning is helping her focus on what’s next instead of surviving the day.

“That’s what it means to me,” said Kinell. “It means privacy, and it gives me hope in life that I am gonna get this job. I am gonna get this apartment, and I am optimistic as all can be.”

A permanent home and a permanent job are the end goals Mallory and her team are trying to help all their clients reach in a time when both are tougher to find than ever before.

“Once an individual has housing, all the other things will fall into place,” said Mallory.

Kinell is seeing things begin to fall into place. It's a process that all started the day she checked in for a second chance.

“I’m going on a year sober, I’m happy, no more tears,” she said. “I’m looking forward to moving ahead. I think it’s my time.”

For more information on Columbus House, click HERE.