On the television over by the wall, the evening news is saying that the governor will cut $35 million from state agencies and commissions. The men at South Park Inn are suitably attentive. South Park is one of Hartford's overburdened homeless shelters. Most of these men are back for the evening from their day-labor jobs, scattered around the room on much-used chairs and couches, conversations punctuated by the occasional loud bark of a laugh.
And then the reporter says that the governor will spare one state agency from the cuts — the Department of Correction — and the men erupt in what will be the biggest laugh of the night.
By all means, says one man, let's keep the jails up and running.
Meanwhile, shelters around the state are spreading pallets on the floor to squeeze in one more person. They're stretching meal budgets for people for whom the financial crisis hit months ago — even years.
A recent census of the state's homeless has one bit of good news: The number of chronically homeless — people with a disability who are long-term or repeatedly homeless — has not increased significantly in a year. But that's balanced with another tidbit from the same census: Thirteen percent more families — including 861 children — are homeless.
Tonight, Kate Kelly of the Reaching Home Campaign and Natalie Matthews of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness set up at a table in the lounge's corner. They are registering voters. Several organizations — including the National Alliance on Mental Illness of CT and the Connecticut AIDS Resource Coalition — are part of the national effort to register Americans who have bumped down the economic ladder straight to the shelters' floors.
Advocates say there are roughly 3.5 million homeless people nationwide. Scant few vote, but Florida advocates registered 100 one recent week in West Palm Beach. Another 400 were added in Oregon — twice the number they registered in the 2004 election.
Clients without an address can use the shelter's, Kelly and Matthews tell the men as they line up. Some of the men tell them quietly that they've been in jail. Kelly and Matthews explain that in Connecticut, people convicted of felonies can vote once they are out of the criminal justice system — out of jail and through with parole, according to the Secretary of the State's office. There are a few exceptions — perpetrators of voter fraud, for one. The state has tried to streamline the voting process in preparation for the registration deadlines later this month.
When things get quiet at the table, a tall man with no eyebrows walks up, leans over and places his hands on the table to tell Matthews that while he appreciates her efforts, he doesn't believe in voting. George W. Bush stole the first election, and then he stole the second one, the man says. "It's a no-win situation," he says.
Matthews listens respectfully. Democracy is messy, sometimes. The man pushes off and goes back to his seat just as the rest line up for dinner. A staff member calls out that they're sorry, but people who don't have a bed for the night have to leave. There's not enough food. Those men peel off and leave.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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