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Can We Fix City's 'We Can't' Attitude?

Helen Ubiñas

September 28, 2008

Some days, I swear what Hartford needs more than a new mayor or some leadership with a clue is a professional mediator.

You know, someone who gets paid to cut through the bureaucracy, confusion or just plain bull and actually gets things done.

I was beyond incredulous over a note I'd gotten from a concerned resident about Open Hearth's wood shortage when I walked into the shelter the other day.

A Blue Hills resident wrote to say he and his wife had recalled a recent story about the homeless shelter's firewood-selling program running short when they noticed some downed trees in Keney Park. Unlike so many around here, they actually came up with a solution: Why not offer the trees to the shelter?


Except word came back from the city Department of Public Works that they'd already offered the wood to Open Hearth. The shelter couldn't use it.

Couldn't use it? According to the story, things were pretty dire over there with the economic downturn squeezing the loggers from whom the Open Hearth usually gets its supply. If the shortage persisted, they'd only be able to sell wood through November. And they need that money to help run the shelter and its programs.

As I waited to speak to the chief executive officer, the receptionist summed it up nicely: "I can tell you this; the telephone is ringing off the hook with people wanting wood."

Rebecca Rabinowitz, the CEO, told me later that she hadn't heard about the offer from the DPW, but she'd definitely follow up. Maybe it wasn't the right wood, she wondered. They need maple or oak or other hard woods. Maybe that's why they can't use it.

Maybe, but I wanted to know for sure.

So, I headed over to the shelter's wood yard on Maxim Road to talk to Muhammad Ansari, who runs the program.

By Ansari's math, they're short about 500 cords, so of course he'd love to have any wood he can get his hands on. With oil prices what they are, folks are desperate for wood these days.

But he doesn't have the equipment to pick up the logs; they only have three trucks, the largest of which can only hold three cords of wood. And he doesn't have the staff to handle the chain saws you'd need to cut them. While the homeless men at the shelter are supposed to put in a hard day's work, as far as he's concerned that doesn't mean risking a limb.

Bottom line, he'd love to, but can't.

Next, I put in a call to John Kehoe over at the city DPW. Turns out the downed trees would make perfect firewood. And there's no problem delivering the wood, Kehoe said. But they don't have the manpower to cut the logs small enough so the Hearth's machines can process them.

Again, he'd love to, but just can't.

As far as I can tell, we have a bunch of well-intentioned, willing parties here. Kehoe is willing to deliver the felled trees. Open Hearth is willing to take them. We just need to figure out a way to get the logs cut.

Except we can't.

Can't. Can't. Can't. If we filled a jar with a buck every time something doesn't get done in this city because well, we just can't, we'd have a whole lot of money to do a whole lot of can.

All this can't is a dangerous thing — and not just because it means that for lack of a little thought and some creative cooperation things that otherwise might get done, don't.No, it's dangerous because this "can't do" attitude permeates the city on so many different levels, from wood at the Open Hearth to the schools to violence on the streets.

And in the process, we get hard feelings, excuses, frustration.

A whole lot of we'd love to, but we just can't.

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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