Connecticut was one of the 10 communities chosen by HUD to build processes in our communities with the intention of using their models to end youth homelessness.
In their application, they said they "..will develop a community plan that...will focus on: improving prevention and identification of youth experiencing homelessness; strengthening the coordinated entry and crisis response system to effectively serve youth; and identifying appropriate and cost effective housing and service interventions that provide long-term positive impacts."
Angel Cotto and Natalie Garcia combated homelessness in their youth. They spent Thursday giving service providers a firsthand account of how the system works -- and how it doesn't.
The two were featured presenters during the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness's annual training institute, a gathering of about 400 organizations working to fight the issue, including shelters, housing providers and philanthropies.
Thursday's gathering came after a year of sweeping progress for the coalition, which saw a 24 percent decrease in the number of homeless individuals in the state from 2007 to 2017.
It's a subject both Cotto and Garica are intimately familiar with: As researchers with the Institute for Community Research's Youth Action Hub, they've been gathering data on homeless youth from across the state.
"It's a matter of getting youth to not only having voice in how services are offered, but also partaking in the decision-making process," Cotto, an 18-year-old Hartford native, said. "Instead of not knowing about policy until after the decision was made, and providers not asking for their opinion until after the decision, we want them to be involved in making the decision in the first place."
The two dove into the research field to leverage their backgrounds into improving life for youth in situations similar to the ones they faced.
"There are some young people who have had negative experiences with the system in the past and are reluctant to turn to anyone for help," said Garcia. "If you're a provider, you may be looking at this from a different perspective than us, who actually have knowledge of how the system works in practice."
"So we use that perspective to try and re-open that door to aid that homeless youth have closed because of their negative experiences," she added.
That philosophy aligns well with the general objective of the annual training institute, according to Lisa Tepper Bates, the executive director of coalition.
"You have to invest in training people, and you have to give them an opportunity to sit back and reflect on what they're doing and how they can improve on it," Tepper Bates said. "So we're bringing together the best ideas and giving people who are working in the trenches every day with the folks on the streets the opportunity to see how they can work differently and more effectively."
The training centered on workshops and presentations from professionals in a variety of fields, including education, housing and corrections. It was immersive learning, including a meticulous role-playing session that simulated mediating a dispute between a homeless teen and his parents.
Sometimes, in instances such as that simulated dispute, proper techniques can prevent homelessness and save resources in the long run, Tepper Bates said.
"When we work effectively to prevent their homelessness or work to bring them out of their homelessness to housing, we are making communities better places and we are saving wasted expenses."