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Going From Bad To Worse At Shelters

Susan Campbell

July 14, 2009

In 1990, circumstances landed Bruce Dean a job at South Park Inn, one of Hartford's larger homeless shelters.

It was, for him, an ironic homecoming. Dean once worked in human services, but he'd left to make money in construction. The economy had taken a dip, and good-paying construction jobs were hard to come by, and so here he was, working for low pay, but doing what he loved.

Ah, but you can die rich, or you can die happy. Dean feels more at home with the people in the shelter than he ever felt at a construction site, and he's been there since.

"I grew up with a lot of these guys or guys like them," says Dean. "These are good people with bad problems."

Some of those good people might do a spit-take upon hearing that from Dean. He has a tough reputation, but he also has a deep rapport with the shelter's residents.

"I run a very tight ship," says Dean, "and a lot of the residents may not be able to stand me, but on the other hand, we all try to do as much as we can for them, and they know that."

These days, that's saying a lot. In our current rugged economy, Connecticut's last-chance beds are full, and some places are making pallets in hallways. At some shelters, the hallways are full, and they're turning people away because there's a limit (and a fire code) governing how many people they can house.

And things are getting worse.

Nonprofits like homeless shelters are taking it in the teeth these days while federal money dries up and the state without a budget finds itself incapable of making up the difference, as it has in the past. In a June memo, state Social Services Commissioner Michael P. Starkowski warned of preparing for "major cuts to Connecticut human services organizations."

For South Park Inn, so far that's meant a cut of about $13,414, according to figures from the state not a royal ransom, but not pocket change for an operation that's bare-bones as it is.

On a shelter's already tight budget, "that can mean half a person," said John Ferrucci, the shelter's director. He's already shifted schedules and eliminated part-time positions in the 85-bed facility.

"And now," he says, "this has happened at a time when demand has never been higher."

Ferrucci says he's especially concerned about smaller shelters. How will they survive the cuts?

"We are in a critical situation," he says. "We need to make sure existing facilities are adequately funded to maintain at least a minimum of service and a modicum of decency. We're riding the line on that in this state. Some places are just getting by."

It's not a popular idea, but shelters are asking for more beds, says Ferrucci. Groundbreaking ceremonies for long-term solutions like Casa de Francisco, a 50-unit, four-story apartment complex run by Hartford's Immaculate Conception Shelter & Housing Corp., are important, but short-term, people need a safe place to live.

Meanwhile, Dean's working the phones to find other beds in the city when South Park's full, and still he's crawling under the city's bridges every week to persuade the toughest cases to come inside for a meal, a bed, some medical treatment.

"The economy is tanking for all of us," Dean says. "But we have to look at the bottom end of the spectrum. The rest of us may not be able to afford that extra trip or vacation, but these guys might not be able to eat or afford clothing for their kids. The bad economy impacts all of us but hits the bottom 1 or 2 percent profoundly."

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.
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