December 31, 2006
By REGINE LABOSSIERE, Courant Staff Writer
EAST HARTFORD -- As she drives down Forbes Street and turns onto Forest Street, Leesa Russell points out some houses to her daughter.
What do you think of that house, Russell asks, or that house? The festive lights glow brightly in the Christmas Eve darkness, but the decorations are not as impressive as in years past, the two decide.
"I can't wait until we have our own house so we can decorate for Christmas," says her daughter, Summer.
They sit in the front seats of the car, while the back is loaded with blankets, clothes, a little case with Russell's toiletries and a small bag that holds one roll of toilet paper. They are driving around spending quality time together in what has been Russell's home for months - her Dodge Neon.
Poor and ill, Russell, 34, and 14-year-old Summer are among thousands who struggle to find the most basic of needs: a place to live. Russell's $750-a-month New Britain apartment was too expensive, and she left in September to avoid eviction. But shelters are full. And the process of obtaining subsidized or transitional housing takes months.
Her experience mirrors that of scores of state residents for whom there is no housing. They are working, going to school, or raising their children, but find themselves homeless when they are turned away from too-full shelters or get mired in the process to obtain the help they so desperately need.
According to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, state shelters served almost 15,000 people in 2005 but had to turn away people almost 35,000 times because there were no beds available.
Rachel Heerema, director of the coalition, blames much of the state's homelessness on high rents and less support for affordable housing from the state and federal governments.
"The trend over the past six years is there has been an over 300 percent increase in turn-aways at shelters," Heerema said. "There's that many homeless people in Connecticut and there's just no room in the shelters."
With people living paycheck to paycheck just to pay rent and buy food, one change in their life, such as a heart attack, can take them from an apartment to the streets quickly, Heerema said.
"Everybody who experiences homelessness has their own particular story to tell," Heerema explained. "Someone loses a job, someone has a medical crisis they didn't expect to have, you go from a two-earner household to a one-earner household, family breakup, all those types of things, and then suddenly working-class people become homeless."
Judy Vazquez, director of housing services for The Community Renewal Team, which runs the East Hartford Community Shelter and other shelters, said East Hartford averages 475 turn-aways per month.
"We have a family that's moving out and we already have a family that's filling the slot," she said.
And finding supportive housing isn't any easier. She said the waiting list can be three months and the application process can be six to nine months.
"The issue is the process and the length of time it takes to get into those programs," Vazquez said. "You have all these compounding issues and the last thing you want to do is call a place every day when all you want is a place to sleep for the night."
A Lifelong Struggle
Russell has struggled her entire life but she always had a job and always had a place to live, until now.
"I'm angry, I feel very hurt. At times I feel very confused. I feel like I don't want to live anymore. I have done so much in my life and for nobody to help me? I'm not asking for any handouts. I want a home to raise my kid," Russell said recently, breaking into tears.
She wants to know how she can once again get control of her life.
"Not to be able to get help, the system just let me go?" Russell said. "I don't understand."
Born and raised in East Hartford to parents who consider themselves the working poor, Russell moved out and had a baby with an abusive boyfriend 14 years ago. Her arrest record lists several occasions where the police were called to their East Hartford home. She has pictures that show her battered face.
She left the boyfriend once when Summer was a year old and they stayed in a Hartford shelter for four months until she could find a place to live through the Section 8 assistance program.
Russell left her daughter's father for good in 2001. She returned to Goodwin College on financial aid and grants, and is now studying to become a medical assistant.
But last year, she knew her life was changing for the worse. Her paychecks weren't enough for her and Summer, an East Hartford Middle School student, and she was feeling ill. It turns out Russell had a few small heart attacks but it wasn't until the doctors found three clots in her heart and put a stent in the organ on July 4 that they knew about the previous ones. Russell said doctors told her she would have to take a year off from work to recover.
"From the minute I had the heart attack, I knew I was going to be homeless because the doctor said I needed to take a year off. I knew this was going to be devastating to me," she said.
But a woman with barely enough money to pay rent and feed and clothe her growing daughter cannot rest for a year. She returned to work four days after heart surgery only to become sicker. She was admitted to the hospital and lost her job.
In September, with a landlord pressing for back rent, Russell packed up and she and her daughter moved into a friend's Enfield apartment and waited for empty beds at a shelter. Every day since September, she said, she calls shelters in East Hartford, Vernon, Hartford and Bristol.
Workers at the shelters tell her that there is no room. But they tell her she should call shelters in the region and to keep calling every day until there is space. Workers also say to stay with friends or family until space is available. Russell said she has been following their suggestions.
She and Summer left the Enfield apartment in October and moved into the East Hartford apartment of a friend and his parents. But the landlord found out that two extra people were living there and her friend's family received an eviction notice Nov. 2. The next week, Russell and her daughter moved out.
Summer has been sleeping on a small bed in a large crawl space in Russell's parents' East Hartford home. Her parents do not have the means to help Russell and so she has been sleeping in her car near the Glenn Road apartment building where her friends live. She feels safe there because she knows the neighborhood and her friends are nearby in case of emergency, she said. She occasionally takes naps in an East Hartford Dunkin' Donuts during one of her friend's shifts.
She washes in public restrooms and parks her car at the far end of the parking lot when she goes to work so that no one notices her most needed possessions packed in her car. Several months ago Russell found a 15-hour-a-week job in the mailroom of a temporary job placement agency.
"I feel flabbergasted that I'm not able to provide for her for what she truly needs and wants," her mother, Rosalie Russell, 59, said. "When things are out of your control, you feel helpless. I pray to God everyday, but I don't think God is listening. The man upstairs is busy with so many other things."
Just Wants Help
Monday through Friday is spent working at the temp agency, taking classes at Goodwin College and hanging out in a library. Russell said she sleeps about three nights a week in her car. A few times she has slept in the waiting room at Hartford Hospital. One night she slept on her parents' couch.
Her father collects cans at his job so she can cash them in to have spare change for gas, which comes in handy on nights like Christmas Eve where the temperatures hovered above freezing and her tank was nearly empty and she would need more gas to keep the heat on all night.
A co-worker sometimes brings extra soup to work so Russell can eat lunch. A college teacher sometimes brings her fruit. The teacher learned that Summer was stuffing her size 9 foot in a size 6 so she gave Russell $50 to buy new sneakers for her daughter.
Summer, who calls her mom her best friend, said their living situation makes her sad.
"Sometimes it makes me think that if I wasn't born this wouldn't be happening because my mom has to struggle," Summer said.
Russell is concerned for her health and her daughter.
"I worry about my sickness because if I die, who's going to take care of my kid?" she said. "She has so much optimism, she's so great. She keeps me together sometimes."
Russell said she feels as if her mind, soul and heart are breaking apart.
"I just need some kind of help to get on my feet," she said. "I just want to be a mother to my child."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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