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No Homeless: The Special Just-in-time-for-Thanksgiving Edition

kerri provost

November 19, 2009

Two days ago Cityline published a letter that Rich Wareing sent to numerous individuals regarding the plan to house a “no freeze” shelter at the Center Church downtown. He wrote:

Indeed, that Mr. McGovern would seriously consider locating a facilty which the City estimates will be 50% utilized by registered sex offenders across the street from two apartment buildings, three blocks from a magnet high school, and right in the middle of the most signficant business and entertainment district in the city, speaks volumes about the City’s disregard for the welfare of its voters, taxpayers, visitors, and children.

While keeping sex offenders away from youth sounds like an altruistic goal, I believe this argument is deceptive. Here’s why:

In the past, Hartford has had a no freeze shelter. This is not a brand new creation. The previous one was housed at 255 Washington Street, but a mile — if walking – from the new one. I even created a map to show this:

View homeless shelters in a larger map

What do you notice about the location of the old shelter on Washington Street? For someone with no familiarity with Hartford, the only two things that really should grab his attention would be that it was located in a very residential area, as one can see a number of houses nearby, and that it was very close to the Connecticut Childrens Medical Center.

One might argue, and rightfully, that the CCMC would have security measures, and it would be unlikely that the children would ever come into contact with the alleged sex offenders. At the same time, schools have security in place. If we want to discuss protecting the children, fine, but we should at least be honest about it. The previous shelter was in an area closer than three blocks to a children’s hospital.

Moreover, it was in a more densely populated residential area. Data from HartfordInfo.org shows that the total population of downtown is 1,118. The area of Washington Street where the previous shelter was is basically where South Green, Frog Hollow, and Barry Square come together (though it is technically in South Green). The population of those neighborhoods is 2,624 (South Green), 9,323 (Frog Hollow) and 15,251 (Barry Square). Obviously, the residents are not entirely clustered around the site, but the number of people potentially affected by the previous shelter far outnumbers those that might be affected by the one at Center Church.

What about the businessmen? What about tourists and funseekers?

What about them?

As a resident, I go to sleep in the city. I work here. I travel through here.

Someone coming downtown to work usually follows this kind of pattern: drive to parking lot/garage. Walk perhaps five minutes to the office. Leave office for cigarette/coffee break or lunch. (Some, who have kiosks, cafes, and restaurants within their buildings, do not even step out for that.) Return to office. Punch the time clock, return to car, and leave Hartford.

For those seeking to be entertained, the pattern is much the same.

Residents — who spend far more time in the city — should be prioritized. The homeless, though they have no shelter, are also residents.

Wareing writes, in his letter to the City Council, Mayor, and others:

I ask that you hold off on any outreach until more has been settled so as to avoid any confusion on how an operation would be run”) is just outrageous and completely opposite the supposedly pro-neighborhood, pro-quality of life orientation of our City and our government.

Quality of life for whom?

The complaints that I have heard on the Cityline comments are mixed, though some seem concerned about the hygiene of the homeless (as in these people do not want to be grossed out by the homeless) and being hassled by panhandlers. What about the quality of life for people who do not have shelter? Last night I was outside for half an hour. I had on a coat, mittens, and other pieces of clothing that were in good repair. My toes were numb in half that time, as were my lips and nose. I can not imagine how miserable it must have been to spend the entire night outdoors wearing less. Those who are having to do this are generally in worse health than I am, so I can assume that they would feel the negative effects of the weather sooner than I did.

As for the hygiene, that seems like something that might be addressed when the homeless have a place to go to. There are few establishments downtown that I could imagine being tolerant of a homeless person coming inside of in order to use their bathrooms to help in grooming themselves. What I am reading is that people are uncomfortable with those who are not clean, and yet they are opposed to providing a space in which the homeless could clean themselves up.

Another complaint has been panhandling. If folks did not know, panhandling is virtually nonexistent downtown because of the BID’s ambassadors. In my own experience, I have never felt harassed by someone asking for money. First, it’s rare that I am ever asked for it anywhere in the city. Whenever I decline to give, I usually get something like an understanding nod. I have never experienced someone be persistent or rude with me about this. I have never felt threatened. Maybe I have been lucky. Maybe I have not given attitude about it.

What I am finding most mindboggling about this whole discussion is the idea that a whole new crop of homeless people would materialize in a place where there have not been homeless. Newsflash: there are already many homeless people hanging out in Bushnell Park. The park has a few portapotties, which is fine during the daytime, but if you have ever tried to use one at night, you’d know there are no lights. If we get back to that quality of life issue again, I vehemently hate using portapotties at all. I can not imagine asking someone to use one as his only bathroom. Then, I can not imagine asking that person to use one at night. If I were forced with the choice of using a portapotty at night or urinating in public, I would pick the latter. Having a shelter nearby would mean that they would not only have a safer and warmer place to go at night to sleep, but also a place where they could experience more dignity while experiencing natural bodily functions.

The argument put forth that the homeless would ruin the quality of life or would (with unknown sex offender status) pose as threats to children is flawed.

Sex offenders walk among us. Most rapes and sexual assaults do not get reported. As a result, the rapists and offenders do not get arrested, incarcerated, or marked with the “sex offender” label. Sex offenders, apprehended or not, come from all walks of life. They are among the homeless, the clergy, and even the CEOs. Some clean up better than others. Some can afford better lawyers than others. Furthermore, the “sex offender” category is broad. Someone, as a friend pointed out, could be slapped with an “impairing the morals of minors” for something like walking around naked in one’s own home with the curtains open. Many sex offenders have that status as the result of gray area crimes, like statutory rape, which is sometimes consensual sex between two teenagers who are only a few years apart in age. And yes, some are sex offenders for truly heinous acts. But we can not generalize and we can not realistically avoid sex offenders because we do not know what all of our neighbors, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances have done in their spare time and not gotten busted for.

As for hurting business, nobody likes a rotting corpse on his front steps.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
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