April 18, 2007
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer
A no-freeze shelter run by the Salvation Army in Hartford closed for the season recently. They'd been providing for a little more than 50 people during the worst of winter.
Another Hartford shelter, Immaculate Conception, closes for the season in early May. That's 90 more people who could be out on the street. Across the state, no-freeze, seasonal and overflow shelters - set up because the state's year-round homeless shelters are full to the bursting - are closing their doors in preparation for warmer weather.
While the weather improves, people who can't find a bed in the state's homeless system can at least find a dry spot beneath the bridges, in abandoned buildings, or doubled- and tripled-up with friends or family.
That's harsh, isn't it?
But this weekend's nor'easter was even harsher. And so except for what advocates call the chronic homeless, the people who fear the bridges or buildings, or don't have family or friends on whom to rely, are left with no alternative but to ring the doorbell at places like Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in downtown Hartford, where they will talk to people like Sister Mary Louise Rouleau or the Rev. Charles Jacobs.
There's an old hymn that includes the refrain, "Where could I go, but to the Lord," but neither the priest nor the sister pretends to be housing specialists. He is chaplain at Connecticut Children's Medical Center and administrator at the church. She is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph and the church's pastoral associate. Both are charged by their faith to help the people who climb their steps, but what does that mean?
They and others at the church have become, by virtue of the location of their parish, experts in case management. The church is within walking distance of a methadone clinic, the buses and trains, and some shelters over on Main. It's just a few more steps up the stairs to ring the doorbell for food. They ring for transportation. They want to go to their doctor, to UConn, to Bridgeport. They ring for money for medicine, for clothes. They ring the bell because the city didn't keep her promises, and now they just want to go home.
Some are addicted to drugs, some to alcohol, some to both and more. Some are mentally ill.
Who knows how many of them are telling the truth about their sad situations? Regardless, the sister and the priest try to help, because how do you say no? They've given out money and bus tokens, and Jacobs has even given out dog food. (He knows there are greater needs, but his soft spot for the fluffy rectory mascot, Snoop-Dog, extends to all canines.)
You can't imagine the stories they hear, says the priest - like the guy in his late 50s, early 60s, a lump of a guy who sells himself on the streets. Imagine the desperation, he says, of the man selling himself and his customers.
What housing specialists know on a global level, the priest and the sister know on a personal one: You can't keep throwing money out the door and hoping for the best. You have to have political will, long-term programs, and patience. Soon, all 14 overflow, no-freeze state shelters will be closed. Providence demands that the weather will ease, but if you are down on your luck, addicted, mentally ill, and you have to depend on providence or strapped churches for aid, good luck to you.
The nun says regular people need to protest, as they have against the war in Iraq. We who are comfortably housed must cry out for our fellow citizens in need, and we must write our politicians to tell them this is a serious issue and ask what they are doing about it, because programs that help the destitute are, themselves, wanting. The shelters can't hold any more. Because of recent draconian cuts in funding to AIDS programs in the area, 140 households are losing rental assistance. Where will those families (including children) go? Why, straight up the steps to Holy Trinity.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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