Catherine's Place Gives Shelter, Support, Gentle Push
February 6, 2006
By CHRISTINE DEMPSEY, Courant Staff Writer
Teresa sits at a table in her new,
temporary home. She is wearing a T-shirt that says "Lucky."
She had moved in the previous day,
after living on the streets for a year. But on this day, she says,
she has more than just a roof over her head. She has hope.
Welcome to Catherine's Place.
Located smack downtown, in the shadow
of a rising 36-story, luxury apartment building, Catherine's Place
is something new and different in Hartford's menu of temporary housing
for the poor, the downtrodden, the down-on-their-luck.
The stone and brick building, owned
by St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church, provides a refuge for single,
homeless women with substance abuse problems.
But don't call it a homeless shelter.
Catherine's Place is more homey than most shelters, and, thanks
to paid staff and church volunteers, is able to give its temporary
residents more attention than traditional emergency housing.
Opened as a seasonal, "no-freeze"
shelter in the winter of 2004-05, its mission changed when it re-opened
in November. Its operator, Mercy Housing and Shelter Corp., was
determined to make it accessible 12 months a year for homeless women
who agree to stay clean, and strive to find permanent housing within
three months, a formidable goal.
Since it first opened its doors as
a no-freeze shelter, Catherine's Place has found permanent homes
for 11 of 36 women.
That success is noteworthy in a city
that lacks enough places for homeless women to sleep. As of September
2004, there were 225 beds in the city for homeless men, and only
about 100 for homeless women, said Mary McAtee, executive director
of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.
"People who are doing the work
really understand that an emergency shelter by itself is not the
real answer to homelessness," McAtee said. "We want them
to get into permanent housing." Catherine's Place, she said,
is "a perfect example of a changed approach. ... I think they're
unique in Hartford."
Catherine's Place was named after the
Sisters of Mercy's founder, Catherine McAuley, who created a house
for homeless women and their children in Dublin, Ireland, in the
1800s. The Connecticut Sisters of Mercy founded Mercy Housing and
"We're eradicating homelessness,
we're not just sheltering," said Louann D'Angelo, Mercy's director
of development. The idea, she said, is to give people a way to stop
"making this nomad trail around Hartford, just going from shelter
St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church provides
Catherine's Place's rent-free location through its Franciscan Center
for Urban Ministry. Parishioners cook lunch and dinner for residents
and teach life skills ranging from how to shop for and prepare a
meal to how to knit. They also teach resume and cover letter writing.
A partnership between the church and
St. Joseph College in West Hartford provides health assessments
and medical information through students and faculty.
Although Catherine's Place is officially
called a "recovery house," it does not treat women on
site for their drug problems. Rather, it coordinates each woman's
recovery by sending her to off-site programs. In turn, it receives
reimbursements from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction
Services for the off-site treatment through a federal grant. Catherine's
Place received up to $57,540 in the last two months, said Michael
Michaud, an agency regional manager.
The multi-pronged effort is working
well, Mercy staffers say.
"It's just the feeling that the
program is adopted by a larger community," said Joan Gallagher,
assistant to Mercy's director of programs. "That we can tap
into them any time we want or need them."
A Port in the Storm
In November 2004, the Rev. James Hynes,
pastor of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church, was attending an event
at the church's Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry with Sister
Pat McKeon, Mercy's executive director. He showed her the dorm-like
floor, which used to house parishioners on retreats and, before
that, was a convent.
"Could you ever use it for anything?"
McKeon recalled Hynes asking.
Catherine's Place opened on Nov. 29, 2004. Hynes thought of the
It was full in a day and a half.
Although Mercy has worked with churches in the past, Hynes' offer
was a first.
"I never had a church approach
me and say, `We have space for you to use,'" McKeon said.
It's not just any space. Both the hallway
and seven bedrooms are carpeted. So is the dining room, which is
painted a cozy, pale yellow. Wood molding lines the hall's floor.
Each room has two beds, a desk and a bathroom that is shared with
an adjoining room. The building was renovated in 2000.
"I know it's nicer than my son's
dorm room," said D'Angelo, Mercy's development director.
One resident, Belinda, said she felt
joy when she came to Catherine's Place. Belinda, who used drugs
half of her 43 years and spent time at another Hartford shelter,
asked that her last name not be used.
"When I walked in here, I didn't
know what to expect," she said recently. "God, I was so
happy! When I ever got to the top of these stairs, I was so happy.
`God, yes!' The answer to my prayers!"
But Catherine's Place is not for slackers.
Residents must be clean of drugs and
alcohol. They must beat their addictions, find work, and get into
permanent housing, all within that three-month deadline.
Said D'Angelo in a recent interview,
"If you think this is just a place to lay your head ..."
"You don't stay very long,"
finished Trudi White, project manager for the church.
Belinda knows the routine well.
"Every day, they wake you up,
you get up, you make breakfast, you clean, you make sure things
are tidy. ... You're not here to lounge around. You're told that
every day," she said during an interview with a group of residents
one recent Friday night.
"We are pushed every day to seek
housing and seek employment. It's like a two-way street."
"They help us look into jobs,"
added Zayda Castro, 51, who became homeless when she left her boyfriend
because she was trying to get clean and he was still using heroin.
As recently as last summer, she was sleeping in cars.
The daily encouragement is possible
because of Catherine's Place's staffing levels. There is always
one person working there, more during the busiest times. The ratio
of staff members to residents is much lower than at traditional
shelters, McAtee said.
As Belinda put it, "To me, this
isn't like a shelter at all. It's more like a home. They make you
feel comfortable. You get to work one-on-one with the counselors.
Everybody's close. ... I feel it's getting you ready for your next
step. It teaches you how to groom yourself. Get a job. This place
is beautiful compared to a shelter."
Unlike most traditional no-freeze shelters
- with the exception of those that house children - women at Catherine's
Place don't have to leave each morning.
"You know you have a bed, you
know you have a room, so you can really concentrate on the other
issues in your life. You don't have to worry about where you're
going to sleep at night," McKeon said.
That's key, Belinda said. The other
way, she said, "Sometimes, you would get into trouble because
you are wandering around until 4 o'clock."
The extra attention is helping Teresa.
She said she felt ignored when she was living outdoors.
"I was living out on the street
all year long. I just couldn't get anybody's attention," she
Now, for the first time, she says,
people are listening to her.
A resident named Cheryl said her experience
at Catherine's Place has turned her life around.
"Since I've been at St.Catherine's
Place, I have been clean and sober. The staff here is great. ...
I'm a witness, because I got hired today for a job," Cheryl
"I'm on the right track,
and I'm not looking back."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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