Jeff Russell is a man in his 50s, of smallish stature with a beard long enough to curl at the ends. He's fond of a Russian fur cap that is really from Russia, he says.
If you are ever in Glastonbury, you might see him walking around town, leaning on a long umbrella, wearing that crazy cap.
The Bible says: The poor shall always be with us. It doesn't say where we should put them.
Russell lives in a cave. Precisely where is not your business. Wildlife doesn't scare him, but he fears people stumbling onto his campsite.
A recent story in The New York Times decried the existence of multiple tent cities around the country — Hoovervilles, if you will — where homeless people gather in noticeable numbers in tents or shanties to form communities no one likes to acknowledge. Those Hoovervilles are cropping up in cities and small towns everywhere, in such places as Fresno, Nashville and — though it wasn't mentioned in the Times article — Hartford.
But that's just the homeless you can see. Advocates say there are plenty of people like Russell who've slipped beneath the radar, and as the economy worsens and shelters fill to bursting, there will be more.
At a news conference last week, President Barack Obama said it was "not acceptable" that a country as rich as the United States would have people on the street — to which Russell says, "Amen."
Earlier this month, Russell painstakingly wrote a four-page letter to Obama. It took him a while. Russell is dyslexic, but that's not his only issue. He is also recovering from leukemia and he has, he says, traumatic stress disorder. Some acquaintances suggest he's delusional, but Russell thinks that's just their way of dismissing him.
After he explained his life to the president, Russell wrote: "Would you be so kind as to tell that to the next rich cretin who thinks a $500,000 salary limit is draconian? I could live quite comfortably on what he should be paying in taxes."
He has been homeless, he says, for 4 1/2 years, and in that time he has crashed at South Park Inn in Hartford (briefly because he said he couldn't breathe there), on friends' couches, in his car and, most recently, in a cave.
Last week, he said, a friend bought him a few nights in a cheap motel. It was a rare moment of luxury for him.
How he bumped down the housing ladder is a convoluted story, and it's tough to tell truth from fiction. Russell has a photographic memory for events long past, but "don't ask me what I did yesterday," he says.
So where do you put him? Relying on family is out of the question. Various faith groups have stepped in, but Russell generally exhausts them, and the explanation for that might be in the first page of his note to Obama: "I have a good understanding of nuclear physics. I can't spell 'nuclear' with confidence, but I can explain a reactor or a bomb rather easily. Dyslexia works that way." He lives on just over $600 a month from Social Security, an amount a friend says, "ain't enough to live on, but it's too much to die on."
You couldn't just hand him a key to an apartment and think he'd manage. Russell needs far more.
Meanwhile, he hikes to the post office in East Glastonbury. He walks to Welles-Turner Memorial Library, where he sets himself up at a computer. Sometimes, somebody buys him a meal at McDonald's. Sometimes, people give him rides.
The cave's not so bad, he says. At least the air is fresh.
So what do we do with a guy like this — and with so many more like him? It's a tough question, but we're going to have to come up with an answer, and the sooner the better.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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