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Carol Walter: A Relentless Advocate For Poor, Homeless In Connecticut


January 14, 2013

Carol Walter had developed a national profile in the drive to end homelessness not by promoting larger shelters and bigger programs, but by returning people as quickly as possible to a home of their own.

"She was a relentless and fearless leader who never wavered in her commitment to the people who are homeless and poor in Connecticut," said Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania whose specialty is homelessness. "She was certainly one of the most effective and creative advocates in this country, whose loss will be felt for many years to come."

Walter worked well with everyone, from legislators and agency personnel to the people on the street she was trying to help. Her own history gave her special insight into people who were suffering, and an empathy for their vulnerability.

Walter died Dec. 27 of lung cancer at her home in West Hartford. She was 53. At the time of her death, she was the executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, based in Hartford.

"If you could be half of what she was, you'd be pretty good," said Lee-Ann Gomes, president of the CCEH board. "She was one of a kind."

Walter was born in Stamford on Sept. 14, 1959, and grew up in Bloomfield. As a teenager, she was attuned to the issues of feminism and concerned about the rights of minority groups, including lesbians and homosexuals.

She was brash, fearless and unafraid of standing up for what she believed in, and "insisted" on attending the Shanti School, an alternative high school in Hartford with less structure, said her father, Herbert Walter.

"She was an activist from the get go," said her older brother, Jeffrey.

At Shanti, she could devise her own curriculum and managed to graduate without taking any gym classes.

She attended Antioch College in Ohio, and after graduating in 1981 she moved to Manhattan where she worked in the mayor's office running some projects. But while there she became addicted to crack cocaine. Eventually, she called her mother to rescue her, and she attended a month-long rehabilitation program and then lived in a halfway house.

"She bottomed out relatively fast and she did something about it pretty quickly," her brother said. "She got with the program the first time and within a year she was on her way."

The searing experience which she never hid gave her personal insight into the problems faced by people who are ill, addicted or on the streets, although she was never without a home herself.

"The situation of her hitting rock bottom made her humble about working with a marginalized population," said Mary Patierno, a college friend.

Back in Connecticut, Walter lived in a halfway house for a while, and worked at Columbus House in New Haven, then as associate executive director at the Shelter for the Homeless in Stamford. She became director of the Stewart B. McKinney Shelter in Hartford, where she dealt with the myriad of problems that cause and perpetuate homelessness.

She also worked for a time with the Connecticut AIDS Research Coalition. where she helped people with AIDS find work, and she was a co-founder of the National Working Positive Coalition.

In 2006, she became the executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, which works around the state to try to prevent and end homelessness through community organizing, advocacy, research and education.

The recession that began in 2008 was already being felt acutely among lower income people and later spread to middle income families, who found themselves unable to pay rent or keep up their mortgages. Increasing numbers of people lost their housing, and there was pressure on shelters to increase the number of beds they had and to offer social services to help their residents.

But Walter was in the forefront of those who believed that putting people back in their own housing as quickly as possible was a better solution than merely increasing the size or number of shelters. She was instrumental in the state's adoption of Rapid Rehousing, a program that used federal stimulus money and other funds to help homeless families handle apartment down payments, or pay old utility bills so electricity could be restored all necessary steps in regaining housing, whether public or private. The program also provides subsidies for low-paying wage earners and those seeking work.

"It was a housing-first philosophy," said Lisa Sementilli, deputy director of the Coalition to End Homelessness. "All the things you think are wrong with a person can be addressed better from stable housing."

The program has been used in five cities in Connecticut, and has helped 9,000 people in 4,000 households over the past three or four years.

Walter worked with many other groups that had similar goals. She was instrumental in organizing a statewide census of homeless people. She also worked to identify people who cycled between jail or hospital and homelessness, in the belief that providing services and better housing would cut down both on incarceration and over-dependence on expensive emergency room services.

Walter never seemed daunted by the huge challenges she faced. Petite under five feet tall she was restless, full of innovative ideas and ways to implement them. She discovered grant money in legislative codicils that could be used for programs, and connected different agencies so they could collaborate and work better together.

"She had a sense of urgency about everything she did," said Sementilli. "She was passionate, fearless, and possessed superhuman energy. It was like working for five different people at one time."

Walters' advocacy never took on a scolding, guilt-inducing tone. "She was more able to convince people with a laugh than with a lecture," said Patierno.

She was confident in her abilities without being arrogant though she could also laugh at herself.

There was little down time in Walter's life, which she shared with Debra Walsh, a teacher of acting at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts in Hartford, with whom she lived since 1992 and whom she married in 2006.

She reserved time for a passionate allegiance to the New York Mets, to working out at the gym, to learning more about the Civil War, and to playing with all her newest electronic gadgets, which she could figure out without much help.

And there was always time for family and silly jokes with her friends, when they would laugh at nothing until tears came to their eyes often at made-up words coined by Walter.

In addition to her spouse and brother, Jeffrey, Walter is survived by her parents, Florence Kennedy and Herbert Walter. A brother, Michael, died earlier.

As Connecticut puts together ambitious plans to end homelessness for veterans and chronically homeless people within five years, and families and young people within 10 years, she worked with other organizations and state, religious groups, town officials and homeless people, and was the head of a crisis response system, said Howard Rifkin, executive director of Partnership for Strong Communities.

"She had a sense of urgency, a sense of now," he said. "She had a real connection with whom she was working on behalf of, [and] a passion for social justice and duty in the world, informed by work with the most vulnerable population. She never lost sight of the fact that we were talking about real people and real time."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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