Looking For A Place To Call Home
December 15, 2004
Fourteen months ago, Hartford officials were seething after learning that a Stamford couple had donated a historic building on Bushnell Park to a nonprofit group that wanted to turn it into housing for the homeless and working poor. The couple, Milton and Betty Hollander, were accused of acting spitefully. The plan was put on hold.
And that's where it stood until Dec. 2, when Mayor Eddie Perez emerged from a yearlong silence and started singing a different tune.
Speaking at the launch of the Reaching Home Campaign to build 10,000 units of supportive housing in Connecticut, Perez couldn't have been more laudatory. The effort "is bound to succeed," he explained, because supportive housing is cost-effective and reconnects people with their communities. "In Hartford," he went on, "they've shown that they can be good neighbors [and] improve real estate values."
So, if Perez favors supportive housing, at least in concept, what gives with his unyielding opposition to Common Ground's proposal to create 120 efficiency apartments at 410 Asylum St.?
Wrong building, wrong site.
Perez's inflexibility sums up the problem faced by developers of supportive housing everywhere: Local officials and residents admire it, believe in it and commit to it so long as it's not in their backyard or, in Hartford's case, put in a prominent 78-year-old building on a valuable lot on the periphery of a burgeoning downtown.
Perez reportedly told that to developer Rosanne Haggerty of New York-based Common Ground, the owner of the building, when the two met recently to try to move the project off the dime. Matt Hennessy, the mayor's chief of staff, characterized their conversation as "constructive."
"The mayor is supportive of well-run programs that are going to put people on the right path," said Hennessy. But "Common Ground has heard what the mayor had to say about the importance of having more market-rate housing downtown."
Basically, Perez told Haggerty that he will back her venture, contingent on Common Ground finding a suitable building in another part of the city. The two are going to meet again after Jan. 1.
Despite his opposition to 410 Asylum, Perez is among a growing number of government officials who understand the value of providing safe and affordable housing for the chronically homeless and giving them the medical care, counseling and job skills they need to lead productive lives.
"We can no longer tolerate the shuffling of people from one part of a city to another, from one program to another. It's morally, socially and economically wrong," said Philip F. Mangano, President Bush's "point person" on homelessness. (Who would have thought Bush has a point person on homelessness, let alone a policy?)
Mangano was on hand for the Hartford kickoff of what is to be a 10-year drive to create housing by pooling private, public and philanthropic resources. It's a daunting task but a necessary one.
Roughly 33,000 people in Connecticut were homeless at some point last year, far outstripping the 2,300 supportive housing units available. But with money, pluck and perseverance, the housing supply could soon increase by 40 percent.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell is expected to step up to the plate with bond money following Friday's approval by a state interagency council of a plan to create 1,000 units of supportive housing - 350 for families and 650 for single adults - over the next three years.
"Connecticut ought to be very proud that we're on the cutting edge of this stuff," said Marc Ryan in one of his last official acts as budget director.
Organized by The Partnership for Strong Communities and the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the campaign was jump-started with a rally, peeches and the release of a video in which UConn men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun, speaking slowly and in understandable English, discusses the tragedy of homelessness and what can be done to alleviate it.
But the real stars of the video are two erstwhile homeless people, Laurie Mongillo and Curtis Singleton, who have turned their lives around and whose stories can't help but warm the coldest of hearts.
"It's the simple things that we all take for granted," says Singleton, "a frying pan, my own closet. I have a home."
Michele Jacklin is The Courant's political columnist. Her column appears every Wednesday and Sunday. To leave her a comment, please call 860-241-3163.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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