Community Helps Homeless Couple Move To East Hartford Apartment
November 26, 2009
EAST HARTFORD — - Willie lingered as his landlady got ready to leave. He sat on the back steps of her house, holding the keys she had just given him.
His life was about to change. He was home.
"Home" used to be a stretch of woods along the Connecticut River. Willie lived outside for some 30 years.
Now, he'll have a roof over his head. He'll have heat and a stove.
The two-family house is in a neighborhood Willie knows well. It's a short walk from the downtown shops he visits every day. A good friend lives across the street. And it's not far from where he and Nancy, his longtime companion, used to live.
But their new life isn't perfect. Willie and Nancy don't have the privacy they had in the woods. They're on a busy street, a main route from the highway. They have bills to pay, and bureaucracy has been getting in the way.
Chopping wood and walking 5 miles to buy kerosene for his portable heaters had become difficult, said Willie, 72.
After a Courant story last month described how Willie and Nancy were ready to come inside, one man offered his condo in Bloomfield, and another offered a trailer in Maine. There were offers of food, clothing and money.
Most promising was a phoned-in offer to Kathy Kane, Willie and Nancy's social worker at East Hartford Town Hall. A woman with a history of bad luck with tenants called the day after the article appeared.
She'd rent the bottom floor of her two-family house on Governor Street for $650 a month, $620 if Willie clears snow for the mailman, she said. Willie has no problem shoveling, and they can pay the rent with their Social Security benefits. The landlady said she'll postpone the required security deposit of two months' rent until they can come up with the money.
The apartment is small. It has a living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, enclosed porches and a front yard. It also has a decent amount of privacy, as apartments go; there are no long hallways or elevators to share with fellow tenants.
"I don't see them as elevator-type of people," Kane said. "I think it's a fantastic match."
If anyone deserves this, Willie and Nancy do, she said.
They have had difficult lives, starting when they were young. Willie's mother left him when he was 5; Nancy's tried to kill her. More recently, they endured a fire that burned their shack and floods that soaked their belongings.
"Their lives have just been so wrought with awful things that happened to them, they really deserve to have something good," Kane said.
East Hartford Officer Peter Slocum, who knows Willie from his downtown beat, heard about the offer and called the landlady.
He put in a good word for Willie, he said, telling her, "Hey, you're going to do right by this guy."
The pair looked at the apartment Oct. 17 and Willie picked up the keys the following Monday. They spent their first night there on Wednesday, Oct. 21.
They slept on the floor. It was the best night's sleep they had had in a long time.
"I thought I was going to sleep terrible," Nancy said.EAST HARTFORD — - There are so many reasons sleeping indoors is more restful, they said.
"We don't have to worry about the snow crashing our tent," Willie said. "We don't have to worry about the wind."
"Or freezing to death," said Nancy.
Then there are the other things about living indoors that people take for granted.
"It's nice to be able to take a shower every night," Willie said.
They even have a washer and drier. When they lived at the river, they would hang their clothes to air them out and wear them inside out some of the time.
Cooking is so much easier than it was at the river, when they had to start a fire. Now Nancy has fried eggs and bacon and baked brownies.
Then there's this handy thing called a refrigerator.
"Before, we had to buy food and eat it right then," Willie said. "Now, we can buy food and stock up on it."
Food isn't the only thing filling the cabinets. A locally based organization called Intercommunity Mental Health Inc. donated new dishes, silverware, pots and pans. The agency also gave them a kitchen table and a bed.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society delivered a new sofa and other living room furniture.
Willie has already started doing maintenance work around the house. His first week, he trimmed bushes with a manual hedge clipper and cleaned out garbage — including discarded crack pipes — from under his front steps.
"It's better than I thought it would be, being here," he said. "I wasn't prepared for it. After being here a few nights, I was like, 'Hey, this is a good thing.'"
Nancy is thrilled with her new home. She walked to town hall Oct. 27 and told Kane, "I have a house!" "I have a doorbell!"
Said Kane: "She was so cute."
There are some drawbacks to living in a house, especially if it's in a well-populated neighborhood. Willie's not used to being around people first thing in the morning.
At the river, he said, "I get up, I walk outside, and all I see is the river and stuff like that."
Now, he finds it jarring to see people walking by and cars speeding past.
Then there's the financial stress that comes with having a roof over your head: You have to pay for it.
His first bill, from Connecticut Light & Power Co., was only $3.21 ("I don't know how I'm going to manage it, though," he joked). But he and Nancy hit roadblocks when trying to make other payments.
EAST HARTFORD — - Right around the time their first rent payment was due, Willie found out he had only $38 left in his debit card account, Kane said. He should have had more than $300.
Kane investigated and learned that — unbeknownst to Willie — the bank had started providing him overdraft protection at a cost of $35 for each pur- chase over his limit. In the past, when he ran out of money, the card would be declined. But now, Willie was with- drawing money that he didn't actually have, the bank was covering him, and he had no idea what was going on.
She accompanied Willie to the bank and complained about the new "service," as the bank called it. Kane, who accepted Willie and Nancy's mail at town hall when they were living at the river, said the bank never asked if he wanted overdraft protection.
The bank eventually agreed to give him back the $280 it took from his account, Kane said. Meanwhile, Nancy paid the rent.
Willie and Nancy still have another problem. They have not been able to scrape together the security deposit for their new home.
They applied for aid from the state Department of Social Services in Manchester. Money for security deposits is available to homeless people, Kane said. But their two attempts to get the money failed.
The first time, they ended up leaving the office without being helped. The state worker they talked to told them he doesn't deal with that program, Kane said. He didn't refer them to someone who could help.
The second time — another 15-mile round trip by bus — they were turned away because, by then, they were tech- nically no longer homeless, Kane said.
"What do they have to do, move out to move in?" she asked. "There's people who have moved in, done damage, moved out and got a second deposit" for a new apartment, she said.
Kane called the office to complain, to no avail.
The state Department of Social Services has no record of Willie and Nancy's first visit, said spokesman David Dearborn. The agency continues to look into the matter, he said Wednesday.
Willie struggles to be patient during such encounters. After all, these are the types of people he lived outside to avoid.
His calming solution: He brings Nancy with him.
"She'll put her hand on my leg," he said.
Despite such frustrations, Willie is enjoying his new life. He's staying home a lot more than he used to when he lived outside.
"I like sitting in the front room, just looking out the window," he told Kane.
He's also staying active, taking walks, riding his bike, or working around the house. One day, he got so wrapped up in preparing soil for spring planting he forgot to go to the food bank.
For Thanksgiving, Willie and Nancy have received donated food from St. Mary's Church. Neither likes turkey, so Kane arranged for them to get a ham.
Oct. 19 was the day Willie got the keys to his new home. As is his style, he downplayed the gravity of the moment.
"I just was trying to get a read on the place," he said.
He didn't expect the homeowner to give him the keys so soon — after all, he hadn't paid the security deposit. "It caught me off guard."
Willie sat on the back steps of the house and thought about what was happening. He was filled with gratitude, he said, but he didn't put his thoughts into words.
He didn't have to. His landlady saw the look on his face. She could see how he felt, Willie said.
"I was saying to myself — to her — thank you."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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