His name is Jeff and he's been homeless for 7½ years.
He has a last name, but prefers just Jeff — "the more generic, the harder for some to dismiss," he says. "I could be anyone they pass in the street. Then again, the passage, 'My name is legion, for we are many' fits the homeless, only we are not the demons the people who put us here are. I could be John Anybody."
Long ago, he was an engineering student at University of Connecticut. Along the way, he taught himself a little Russian. He still loves to read — economics is his latest interest — and he is a frequent visitor at Glastonbury's Welles-Turner Memorial Library. At 57, he is plagued by health problems, among them a serious respiratory ailment. He's tried to stay in shelters — "where they pack you in like sardines" — but he walked out coughing up blood. A few years ago, he slept in a cave in Glastonbury, where a small fire kept him toasty.
These days, he's sleeping in his '82 VW van, and on cold nights he relies on sleeping bags tucked within sleeping bags, and a down comforter someone requisitioned for him from the town dump. He had the van running for a while — he was once a car mechanic — but it's parked now. Not to worry, he says. He's making do.
On Wednesday, advocates will conduct the state's fifth annual Point-in-Time survey, a census of the state's homeless coordinated by Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. They'll visit shelters this year. On odd-numbered years, they go into the woods, beneath the bridges, anywhere people — like Jeff —- are known to congregate.
Last year's census contained the disquieting news that chronic homelessness in Connecticut had increased by 26 percent among adults without children, and among homeless adults sleeping outside, the tendency toward chronic homelessness increased by 92 percent since 2009. Census takers found 695 unsheltered people — a 37 percent increase from 2009.
Nationally and statewide, only veterans are experiencing a decrease in homelessness. A new study from the National Alliance to End Homelessness says that the number of homeless veterans declined 11 percent. Overall, the nation's homeless population decreased by 1 percent (by about 7,000 people between 2009 and 2011), but the doubled-up population — people who would be homeless if friends and/or family weren't taking them in — increased by 13 percent.
That group — along with people just out of prison, and youths aging out of state foster care systems —- are at increased risk for homelessness. The report says the odds of someone in the general U.S population becoming homeless is 1 in 194. For the doubled-up population, it's 1 in 12.
This is a complicated population whose issues range from mental health to addictions to just plain bad luck. The bad economy hasn't helped, and if you're looking to do your small part, on Friday Hartford's Immaculate Conception Shelter and Housing Corp. is hosting an unrehearsed but much anticipated Handel's "Messiah" performance by volunteer musicians under the leadership of Bridget de Moura Castro. In the mid-1700s, Handel presented "Messiah" as a fundraiser for London's poor. Since then, music historians say the work has fed more people than any music, ever.
Last year, the performance's suggested entry fee was a winter coat, and I put out word that I intended to fill my convertible VW Bug with coats, and if I overfilled it, I would put the top down to make a delivery to Immaculate. Generous people filled the Bug five times over, and then some nice women came by with a van, and we filled that, too.
Immaculate has enough coats this year, but they could use donations. They operate Hartford's no-freeze shelter, and Immaculate's development director Teresa A. Wierbicki said that though winter is just warming up, they're full, with 150 people. Perhaps you can imagine the cost of hosting that many people every night. See you Friday.
Immaculate Conception Shelter & Housing Corporation's 21st annual "Messiah" performance begins at 6 p.m. Friday at Our Lady of Sorrows, 79 New Park Ave., in Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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