Hartford Homeless Counted In 'Point Of Time' Census
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
February 02, 2013
HARTFORD —— Tony Mack's crew flashed a light across the darkness of a highway underpass, near the old Colt armory, where several tents lined the concrete like cocoons.
Mack, an outreach coordinator for Hartford's Immaculate Conception Shelter, knows of homeless clients who sleep there in spring, summer, fall and stinging frost.
"Is that Victor?" he called out.
"He's not here," a voice answered.
A 54-year-old man bundled in a jacket and blankets poked his head out of a child-size Mickey Mouse tent. He said he was Alfredo Rivera, a resident of the underpass for two years.
Rivera got counted Tuesday night. In Hartford and across the state, in cities such as Bristol and Middletown, volunteers and social service workers roved the streets for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's national "point in time" homeless census.
Suzanne Piacentini, acting director for HUD's Connecticut field office, said the state's homeless population declined 6 percent from 2011 to 2012 — a snapshot of "progress" at a time when there are still "too many people struggling to find an affordable home," she said.
The census, mandated at least every other year, helps advocates and housing officials analyze trends in homelessness, determine who stays in the shelters and gain insight into why, despite a stronger government push to combat homelessness, people remain out in the cold.
About 4,210 homeless people lived in the state in 2012, including men, women and children in emergency shelters and transitional housing, federal data show.
Among the nearly 770 reported homeless in Hartford — the biggest homeless population of the state's urban centers — 141 were children, according to a report released Wednesday by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.
But only 17 Hartford residents, people such as Rivera, were classified as "unsheltered" in a capital city where social services abound for the poor and vulnerable. Statewide, the unsheltered population is projected at 695.
Rivera was one of a small number surveyed in Hartford's streets and hiding places during Tuesday's census, raw data that will be extrapolated to provide an estimate that accounts for those who could not be reached.
Hartford canvassers organized by the nonprofit Community Renewal Team can't search every city block, abandoned building or bridge. They scan pre-selected streets and are discouraged from venturing into danger.
Rivera posed no threat. He was alone when found beneath the I-91 underpass around 9 p.m. Tuesday.
"The others went to jail," Rivera told Mack, a hefty man in a blue leather jacket. "Victor went back to McKinney," the overnight emergency shelter for men a short walk away on Huyshope Avenue.
Rivera answered "no" to most survey questions — whether he is a veteran, has a mental or physical disability, if he has received any income in the past 30 days, or has been involved in the criminal justice system.
"What is the highest level of education you have attained?" asked Jacob Aparicio, 23, of Glastonbury, a volunteer coordinator with Hands on Hartford's Peter's Retreat housing program.
"Eighth grade," Rivera replied.
Even though his mother lives in Hartford, Rivera said later, he believes staying with family would eventually land him in jail. He denied having any substance abuse problem and dismissed the idea of sleeping in a shelter: "I always liked my privacy." He's lived in the streets for about a decade.
An empty soda can and plastic clothes hangers littered the dirt in front of his donated tent. Shirts draped a beam. Rivera raised his voice over the drone of southbound traffic.
"This is my place."
An 'Impulsive Person'
Edward "Eddie" Muniz sat on his bunk bed Tuesday evening, assessing life, as men ate the McKinney shelter's jerk turkey dinner. Muniz is 46 with sorrowful eyes and a kind smile. Since 1999, he said, he has received disability income for mental health issues.
"It's not OK with me," Muniz said, meaning homelessness as a "lifestyle."
Muniz has lived in Hartford, on and off, for 16 years. He wants to get his GED after dropping out of high school almost 30 years ago in the Bronx. He also has a couple of good leads for his own apartment, he said, and believes he is on the verge of independent living again but is taking it slow, using the shelter as "a steppingstone."
"I'm a very impulsive person," said Muniz, who has worked as a substance abuse and HIV counselor. "I've learned not to make too many big decisions."
Muniz said he has stayed at McKinney for almost a year after leaving an abusive relationship in Florida: "I came here on Valentine's Day with a broken heart."
State advocates want to end chronic homelessness in the next three to four years. It follows an Obama administration pledge to solve the problem of long-term homelessness among those with a disability by 2015. The same federal and state goal applies to homeless military veterans.
From 2011 to 2012, the estimated number of homeless veterans in Hartford dropped from 78 to 47, according to point-in-time data, although advocates said veterans — many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — continue to be overrepresented at shelters here and across the country.
Piacentini, the federal housing official, said the agency has worked more closely with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to shrink the number of homeless. Last year, HUD gave $1.45 million to five Connecticut agencies, including the Hartford Housing Authority, to fund 165 rental housing vouchers under the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Obama's 2009 stimulus package, also included $1.5 billion in HUD funding for homelessness prevention nationally.
Jose Vega, program manager for Community Renewal Team's McKinney shelter, said he notices younger veterans seeking help. While substance abuse and mental illness are major contributors to homelessness, he said the stereotypes don't always fit who walks through the door.
"We've had lawyers in the shelter in the past, people who have graduated from Harvard, master's degrees," Vega said. "We have people here because of circumstances," such as arriving from Puerto Rico but not being able to stay with family in Hartford.
Vega noticed a dip in December that he can't yet explain. It was the quietest month in the past couple of years, he said, as McKinney's population hovered in the low 70s. About 85 to 90 men usually show up every night for a bed, Vega said, a refuge on winter days when temperatures dip below freezing.
Tuesday night, Mack drove around Bushnell Park in a minivan, scanning the sidewalks and benches before parking near the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Arch. The 43-year-old Hartford native has worked at Immaculate Conception Shelter for 11 years and keeps a client list more than 400 names long.
Mack tries to befriend each of them, he said. "I bring them clothes, food. ... If they want to go to detox, I'll make a phone call."
Mack has worked the "point in time" census for about a decade. Usually, he finds no more than one homeless person in his assigned block of streets.
In the winter, some clients take the CT Transit bus at night to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, where they often sleep undisturbed in waiting areas before riding back in the morning, Mack said. During the day, they might pass the hours in the Hartford Public Library.
Some sit in hospital emergency rooms just for the heat.
Women and children tend to take advantage of shelters such as My Sisters' Place that exclusively serve them.
And there are those like Rivera. Mack said many survive winter with military-issued, cold-weather sleeping bags that he and workers from other agencies have distributed. He has brought supplies to about 10 clients who live around the Charter Oak Bridge.
"They are hard-core homeless people," Mack said. Some abuse alcohol, which is forbidden in the shelters. "After the library closes, they'll go down to their spot and lay down where no one sees them."
Mack has found men slumped in portable bathrooms, fast asleep. At Bushnell Park, the playground by the carousel is a known resting spot, Mack said, and in the summertime, the pavilion stage in the park's west side has accommodated about eight homeless people who curl up under the nighttime glow of the state Capitol, if police let them.
The park was quiet on Tuesday night. Cecelia Peppers-Johnson, a community planning and development representative for HUD, joined Mack, Aparicio and another young volunteer. They carried bags with gloves, hats, socks, ChapStick and sandwiches for anyone who might need them.
This was Peppers-Johnson's first time out for a homeless census, and she shook her head as snow crunched beneath her shoes.
"All day you get phone calls from people who need someplace to go, and you refer them to all these places," said Peppers-Johnson, a veteran who retired from the Army in 2008.
The government spends billions of dollars on initiatives, and yet, she said, "there are still people sleeping outside?"
Under The Highway
Mack pulled the minivan in front of Union Station. Hartford police Officer Mike Gorman, patrolling the area, pointed the canvassers to a secluded spot near train tracks.
Up a hill and beneath an expansive highway underpass sat a lone figure on the edge of a double mattress, dragging on a cigarette as fog rolled in. Three empty beds lined a concrete wall tagged with spray paint — "HARD KNOX" in big white letters.
The young man looked at his visitors warily. He blew smoke on Pepper-Johnson's clipboard as he answered some questions, giving his birth year as 1984. He claimed that he was only staying there for one night after a "confrontation" at home.
"He was lying through his teeth," Mack said later. "If I lived with my girl and my girl kicked me out, I'm not going under that bridge."
After the survey, Mack led the group until they stood beneath another underpass. Mack focused his flashlight; they looked up at the steel beams that support I-84's Asylum Street exit.
One of his clients engineered a home, almost 10 feet long, with plywood and 2x4 planks that lay across the beams. Mack said he has seen the inside. He recalled giving the person, a Hispanic man in his late 30s or early 40s, blankets years ago.
"It looks like a teenager's bedroom," Mack said, complete with carpet, a bed, a bike and hats hanging on the wall. Before television signals turned digital, the man also had an analog TV powered with a car battery, Mack said.
"You find a way to survive if you have to," Peppers-Johnson said.
But the man was nowhere to be found.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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