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Chaos, Compassion Create A Rhythm At Homeless Shelter

February 18, 2007
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer

A little girl with a "You're Not Worthy" T-shirt has a science project she wants to show someone, and LaTanya Gallimore tries to give her some attention, but she's busy. It's Gallimore's job to go through the women's purses and bags at the end of the day, when the residents check in for a place to sleep at South Park Inn, one of Hartford's larger homeless shelters.

Gallimore is cheerful and matter-of-fact as she digs through a bag or quickly thumbs through a cigarette pack. The residents are allowed only their asthma pumps. All other medication must be locked in the office.

Meanwhile, the little girl - a fourth-grader at Betances elementary - still has her project. It's a battery and two wires that, attached just right, will light up the smallest light bulb imaginable. To set it up, the girl squats on the floor beside a fifth-grade boy. They mock-squabble and begin to call out the other's latest crime. He punched someone in the throat at school, and he's officially suspended. She's very bossy. He's only in fifth grade, but he should be in seventh. And so on.

It's check-in time at South Park, time for the residents to settle in for the night in dormitory-style rooms. There are murals and curtains and a fireside room recently redone by volunteers. There's food and television and heat, but let's be honest, it's still a shelter in a city where the community seems to care (volunteers are regulars) but politicians not so much. The shelters are full, and already workers are worried about the influx of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan war. Programs that support veterans have been cut or eliminated altogether. You could drive a tank through the holes in their security net.

If you stand at a certain spot in the hallway downstairs, you can hear the heartbeat of the shelter. To the right are women and children gathered in the dining room to eat a meatloaf dinner served by a Simsbury Confirmation class. To the left is the bustling office, where Bruce Dean, a supervisor, is on the phone patiently explaining to a man that they don't have room for him, but they can take his girlfriend. With luck, some other shelter will take the guy. It's 12 degrees outside, cold enough that the shelter stayed open all day.

Straight ahead, two well-dressed medical students stand in front of the men seated in the television lounge. The soon-to-be-doctors talk about cocaine. Does anyone know what cocaine is? they ask. A man in the back row raises his hand and calls out, "It's a downfall!"

Over by the ramp to the front door, Gary Sullivan is running a wand over the torsos of the new people, who know enough to stretch out their arms, crucifixion-style. Technically, each resident has 28 days. Some leave much sooner, but some stay longer. As long as they're showing some effort, says Brian Baker, assistant director, no one gets kicked out.

Milling around in a wheelchair is a one-legged man for whom the f-word is an adverb, adjective, verb and noun. He came to South Park because someone - he can't remember who - told him to, but there's no room. Baker makes a call and tells the guy he can have a plate of meatloaf, and then Baker will drive him to another shelter that has promised to take him for the night.

The man rolls down the hall, then back up again, muttering all the way. He is drunk or high or both.

Upstairs, the women arrange their bags - now thoroughly checked by Gallimore - around beds that are neatly made. Some have stuffed animals arranged against fat pillows. Yes, it is a shelter, but these woman have pride, says Baker.

It is controlled chaos as the residents tuck in for the night. And out in the hallway, the little girl touches the wire to the battery, and the light flickers, just barely.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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