The Book of Matthew says the poor will always be with us, and if Hartford's homeless history is any indication, that's pretty much true.
Back in Colonial times, vagrants were jailed, and sometimes beaten. In the early 1680s, then-Gov. William Leete said, "beggars and vagabond persons are not suffered," but should be put to work.
In the next century and beyond, Hartford's influx of immigrants brought all the symptoms of an urban environment where too many people were packed into too small a space with too few resources.
City leaders tried to answer the homeless issue by allocating "outdoor alms," or money set aside for the homeless. But as the 19th century was winding down, the Rev. John James McCook (of the Butler-McCook House) successfully argued for reducing that amount from $40,000 to $25,000. He was adamant in his belief that the homeless earned their plight through a toxic brew of sloth and sin.
He was appointed to run a committee to study the issue, and in the 1891 report, McCook decried Hartford's $2.07 per citizen spent in poor relief, compared with an average of $1.22 in other cities around the state. He wasn't crazy about the (high) cost of burying the poor, either.
And then this man of the cloth began befriending his subjects, the homeless. He learned their names. He even wrote a bill to prohibit the practice of jailing vagrants. He tried to build a reformatory, but his neighbors — who hadn't taken the time to learn any names — said no.
In the early 1980s, a priest at Immaculate Conception Church on Park Street found a homeless man frozen to death near the church steps. Churches and other faith groups had always reached out to the poor, but priests began opening up the basement of the church, and church members volunteered to cook meals. That endeavor grew into the Immaculate Conception Shelter & Housing Corp., with emergency shelter, outreach, education, employment programs and permanent supportive housing.
Did we ever know the dead man's name? If we did, I've never heard it, but his death was a catalyst for Hartford's modern-age homeless system.
On Wednesday, advocates and supporters came to Charter Oak Cultural Center for a National Homeless Persons' Day memorial. Since 1990, on the shortest day (and longest night), advocates and others have stopped to remember the people who didn't make it through the year and died homeless or from symptoms of homelessness, such as unmet medical needs.
Bristol resident Audrey duBay sent 35 hand-knit caps. She doesn't know any homeless people by name, but she knows they need to stay warm. Amy Malick took the caps for Hartford's Christ Church Cathedral's Church Street Eats, with its free clothing distribution, which topped $80,000 last year. Very shortly, you'll see duBay's handiwork throughout Hartford.
Hartford lost eight people who were homeless in 2011, and their first names and the first letter of their last names were read Wednesday. We lost:
The service — with HartBeat Ensemble, soaring music and heartfelt speeches — was precisely the kind of send-off we all deserve, but it can't stop there. It is just as Matthew C. Morgan, executive director of Journey Home, a homeless prevention organization, said at the service's end: Mourn the homeless dead, yes. But then let their deaths be a catalyst. The poor will always be with us. Now: What are we going to do about it?
And merry Christmas.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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