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New Apartment Signals A Journey Home For Hartford Man

'Vulnerability Index' Targets At-Risk Homeless For Housing


January 23, 2012

HARTFORD —— The day that Ramon Ibarrondo moved into his new apartment was cold and bright and faultless — the kind of winter day that is beautiful and almost brutal in its clarity.

When he unlocked the door, the Barry Square apartment was overwarm and empty, with the exception of a few boxes that Ibarrondo had brought over from the shelter — the clothing and personal effects of a 46-year-old man who has spent the better part of his adult life in prison.

Ibarrondo left Willard-Cybulski prison in Enfield on Jan. 14, 2011, after serving a year-long sentence for felony drug possession. He has spent the time since hopscotching between homeless shelters, struggling to control his drug addiction and to resist the lure of "the street" — the people and associations, influences and habits that have led to the darker periods of his life.

It is Ibarrondo's troubles — and the likelihood that he might die on the street — that have brought him to this apartment. Since 2010, the nonprofit Journey Home has worked to implement a homelessness initiative called the vulnerability index — a registry that prioritizes housing for the population most at risk of dying on the street.

The index takes into account factors, including number of ER visits and hospitalizations in a given year, being over 60 years old or having HIV/AIDS, liver disease, kidney disease, a history of frostbite or hypothermia and/or tri-morbidity — the category for those grappling with addiction, mental illness and chronic physical health issues (it is to this category that Ibarrondo belongs). To qualify as vulnerable, individuals must also have been homeless for at least six months.

"The longer you are homeless, the more likely you are to die on the street," said Journey Home Executive Director Matthew Morgan.

Above all, the index is practical — reducing the need for things like ER visits and police interventions in a population for whom homelessness is most destructive and expensive. First pioneered by the New York-based organization Common Ground, it has been adopted in a number of major U.S. cities.

Success is defined cautiously, and primarily as being able to maintain housing — for those who score high on the vulnerability index lead lives that remain deeply troubled, mired in the problems that were, in many cases, responsible for their becoming homeless in the first place.

As Ibarrondo unpacked his belongings, he talked about the intertwined histories of his addictions and incarcerations — recounting the many missteps that have determined the pattern of his life to this point.

Ibarrondo moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico when he was 4; his family landed in a Bridgeport housing project, which he described as a city, a world unto itself. There were stores and clubs, even empty apartments for socializing and dates. And there were drugs. Ibarrondo started smoking marijuana around the same time that he started shoplifting, which brought him to his earliest encounters with the legal system.

Cocaine came next. "Crack was killing me," Ibarrondo said, recalling how he would spend his paycheck in a matter of hours, then break into homes looking for money to buy more. "I thought I could never have stopped doing crack, but I did."

But the victory was tarnished by the heroin addiction that supplanted it. And it is the heroin addiction that has remained the more enduring challenge. Asked when he last used, Ibarrondo paused to calculate — it had been two days. Methadone and suboxone have not worked, but he is cutting back, Ibarrondo explained.

"I just have to stay positive; 2012 is my year. I know I can make it if I haven't died after all this time."

He turned around in the apartment's small foyer, its carpet warmed by the sun flooding in through the picture window. "Got my chandelier right here," he said, pointing to the light fixture directly above him. "Got my closet right here… it's all mine."

Ibarrondo has experienced bouts of homelessness in the past, but they never lasted this long, partially because there was often drug money to help cover the rent. He lived for years in a Portland rooming house, but the owner wouldn't take him back after the drug raid that preceded his most recent prison sentence. His new apartment will cost $690 per month, of which he will pay $175 — and the electricity — bill from his disability check.

A little after 2 p.m., members of Gilead Congregational Church arrived with a donated bed, two bureaus, a couch, linens, kitchen ware and bags of groceries. They unpacked eggs and pans and mattress pads, joking as they arranged the simple wooden furniture.

Before leaving, they said a blessing for him, encircling Ibarrondo and laying their hands on him as they prayed that God would give him encouragement and strength. Ibarrondo told them that he needed all the blessings he could get.

Traditionally, housing has been given to the homeless that showed themselves "housing ready" by completing drug and alcohol treatment programs or agreeing to meet and maintain conditions in exchange for housing. But Common Ground found that this system essentially screened the chronically homeless — both from the housing and the stability that went along with it and offered the only hope of changing their lives.

"The vulnerability index turns it around," said Barbara Shaw, CEO Hands on Hartford. "Even if we're tempted to take people who will be less challenging, they're not the kind of people who need us the most, who may die on the streets if we don't help."

Journey Home has partnered with a number of other capital-region agencies that offer supportive housing units — Hands on Hartford supplied Ibarrondo's case manager and secured his supportive housing voucher from the city — working to convince service providers to use the index when determining housing placements. By its most recent count, it has helped 65 people identified as vulnerable move into supportive housing since 2010, according to Journey Home's Morgan.

When Ibarrondo was 17, he left Bridgeport to work for a traveling carnival, assembling, operating and disassembling the rides, as the carnival moved from one New England fair to the next. "I had to go, I had to explore something." He laughed. He had needed his mother's permission to go because he was underage.

His mother. Two years later, she hanged herself, he said. He pulled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of her name that he had done in prison.

Sometimes, he thinks about what his life would have been if he stayed with the carnival. "I never would have had a record," he mused. But the company was sold to another operator and he came back to Connecticut, where he did drugs and sold drugs and has spent at least a part of almost every year since in prison.

The apartment would help. He would watch TV here, away from the street and its temptations. But he kept returning to sad stories, of short-lived redemptions, failed starts, and all the people he knew who used too much and died too early.

"Too much depression," he said. "I've been so many times close to death. I think too much and when I think too much, that's when I use."

He looked around the apartment hungrily, as though the apartment and and its strange, still somewhat foreign objects could be a kind of charm against the past.

"Now I think it's time to turn my life around. I'm going to be 47 next month," he said. "A new year … 2012 … moving forward." He repeated the phrases like an incantation.

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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