December 20, 2006
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer
Things could have been different.
The early years of Chris Gardner - as shown in his memoir "The Pursuit of Happyness" - are a bleak beginning that points the author nowhere but the streets. His biological parents are inattentive or gone. His mother's boyfriend is violently abusive. He is raped by a stranger whom he later tracks down and crowns with a cement block. There are drugs, street hustling and deprivation. Add to that several intersections of bad luck that even Gardner's street smarts can't negotiate.
The movie of the same name (starring the eminently likable Will Smith) doesn't pay much attention to the painful early years of Gardner, former homeless man, now a multimillionaire who mingles with the likes of Nelson Mandela. What you see, instead, is Smith running through the streets of San Francisco, pulling behind him like a reluctant buoy his young son. The Gardners sleep on bathroom floors, in BART trains and in a shelter until by force of will Gardner Sr. completes a competitive stockbroker internship and starts the climb up the economic ladder. In the last scene, when the real-life Gardner wordlessly strolls confidently across the screen, things are definitely looking up for Smith-as-Gardner and his son.
Things might have been different for Paul Failla, too.
Failla was one of Hartford's homeless, a longtime regular at Mercy Housing and Shelter Corp. in Hartford. He'd been a client for at least 18 years, by the count of Nancy Guyotte Scanlon, a Charter Oak Clinic nurse who travels around Hartford's shelters and soup kitchens providing medical care to the city's disenfranchised. She'd see Failla at Mercy, mostly out on the shelter's ramp, smoking. When he grew his beard, Failla looked a lot like Santa Claus. He was quiet and grateful for any help, Scanlon said.
Failla died this year, of cancer. His name will be among 20 others that will be read aloud at a candlelight service for the homeless at 4 p.m. Thursday at Mercy, 118 Main St., in Hartford. The service is part of a nationwide effort to draw attention to homeless people who - unlike Gardner - don't achieve the American dream. The service always falls on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. It's the brainchild of the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, a Tennesseeorganization that provides medical and advocacy services to a population in dire need of it.
According to the council, the average age of death for a homeless person is 50, roughly the average age of death of Americans in 1900. Homeless people suffer cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, flu and diabetes three to six times the rate of the rest of the population. Outside and unprotected, they are also more susceptible to physical violence.
In October, Daniel Worobel, a homeless man who lived in the woods around New London, died in his tent. A state chief medical examiner's report said the main cause of death was heart disease. Worobel was a drinker as well. His friend, Bill Walsh, another homeless man, died in April.
Stories like Chris Gardner's are inspiring. They remind us how many of us live close to the abyss and succeed anyway. But stories like Danny's, Bill's and Paul's remind us that the abyss is even closer than we think. Carol Walter, who next year becomes executive director at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said that people die because of homelessness - not just because they're out in the elements but because they don't have access to medical care. Like Gardner in the movie and book, their attentions are devoted to finding food and shelter because, said Walter, "they have no ground under them and no roof over them. And the tragic irony is that it would cost our society a lot less to end homelessness than it does to deal with homelessness the way that we do and watch people die."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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