February 4, 2007
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer
South Park United Methodist Church's old pulpit rests in storage these days in the Hartford building's old loft. One day, it would be nice to haul the thing down, bolt it back to the floor and open the building to a new generation of believers.
But that would mean removing the cubicles that now crowd the sanctuary. Since the mid-'80s, the old brick church has been a homeless shelter, South Park Inn, just across from Barnard Park.
Today, Brian Baker, the shelter's assistant director, has driven down the road to Wethersfield's Silas Deane Middle School to talk to eighth-graders. The students completed a community service project in late January. They collected items such as towels and toiletries and packed bagged lunches for the shelter's clients. Who knows? One day one of these kids might grow up to possess the political will to end homelessness.
The answer certainly isn't in emergency shelters, which in the Hartford area have been overflowing for the past few frigid weeks.
Last year, more people in American cities were homeless and hungry than the year before, says a U.S. Conference of Mayors report on urban poverty. A quarter of emergency-shelter clients were children. Every morning at South Park, buses pull up front to take children to their hometown school. Law dictates that a homeless child be given transportation to attend school in the town of his or her last known address - to what is called their school of origin.
The increased homeless population is part of a 30-year trend, traceable back to the deinstitutionalization of mental patients. Add to that the destruction of single-room-occupancy buildings in urban centers - so-called flophouses - to make way for shiny new office buildings. Social-service budget cuts over the years haven't helped, either.
Over in New Britain, the Friendship Service Center is starting a campaign to raise $3 million to build more "supportive housing," apartments where people can gain independence and have access to services such as mental health and drug abuse treatment as well as job training. The center has access to 27 units and wants to build 12 more. South Park has supportive housing space for 35 adults.
The New Britain center was started in the '60s by a monsignor who wanted to give the drunks on the street a place to get out of the cold and have a cup of coffee. The center has expanded exponentially since then because this is the way to end homelessness as we know it: Get people off the streets by putting them (ever so briefly) in emergency shelters, and then funnel them into programs that will give them the skills to stay off the streets.
On this day, Carmen Padilla is scared, happy and weepy. After bouncing from house to house for two years, the grandmother of seven arrived at the Friendship Center last March angry and scared. The same with Ginger McConkie, who swore she'd never go to a shelter. The first week Pat Caron came to the center, she cried every day, she said.
But today, Padilla is moving out to her own apartment, just as Caron did in December. Amid Padilla's protests that she doesn't want to leave her friends, Caron says, "Didn't I tell you that was going to happen?" As Caron's 16-month-old son, Robert, cheerfully lurches from room to room, gathering keys to play with, McConkie and Padilla are like two worried aunts, chasing him down as his mother talks.
"I cried for a week," said Caron of her first few days at the Friendship Center, "and then I got to know people." Now she returns to the center several times a week - partly to see her friends and partly to let Robert visit Ellen Perkins Simpson, the executive director since 1991.
The center's expanded supportive housing is the way to go, no question. We can't keep warehousing people, and we can't rely on already strapped shelters. Supportive housing will get that South Park pulpit back where it ought to be, and those men, women and children into homes of their own, where they ought to be.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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