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Would Downtown Homeless Shelter Hurt Hartford?

Hartford Courant

November 28, 2009

Looked at objectively, a wintertime "no freeze" homeless shelter in the annex of Center Church in downtown Hartford should not pose much of a problem. It will be fully used on the coldest days, when most people are indoors.

And it's not as if the shelter will bring a boatload of new homeless people into downtown. The shelter would replace one that was just a few blocks away, so many if not most of the clients would be people who pass the day downtown already.

But some business people and residents are adamant that a shelter in the central business district will scare away customers and send the wrong message about downtown commerce.

Much of this is perception, part of the stigma that surrounds the homeless. Somehow, midtown Manhattan and downtown Boston scrape by with a resident homeless population. Most people who live or work in downtown Hartford don't notice the homeless any more than they notice the lawyers or actuaries.

But there is just enough truth to the concern, just enough panhandling and nuisance crime, to make this a real quandary.

The Alternative Is Unthinkable

No one wants a fellow human being to freeze to death. A compassionate city policy requires that there be shelter for anyone who needs it on very cold nights.

For the past nine years, the Salvation Army has run a no-freeze shelter at the corner of Washington and Jefferson streets for 50 to 60 clients. But in late September, that agency announced that it could not run the shelter again this year.

Since winter is almost here, city officials had to scramble. All other shelters are full. The Center Church congregation offered its annex. Not having a better offer, the city was receptive, although the deal has not been made final. This brought an adverse reaction from some downtown business people, who say they understand the need but would like the shelter somewhere else.

The city is looking at other options, but is also running out of time.

Most homeless people don't badger you for change. Brian Baker, the deputy director of the South Park Inn, a well-established shelter in the South Green on the southern fringe of downtown, said 30 percent of his residents hold jobs. He said the vast majority, 80 percent or more, are decent folks, some of whom are in the shelter with their children until they can find an affordable place to live. There is a small percentage of chronically homeless who are mentally ill. These are the ones who tend to be troublesome and in need of immediate help.

Indeed, some of the "chronics" who make pests of themselves are those who live on the street and not in shelters, Baker said.

The word was that half the clients at the downtown shelter would be registered sex offenders. Capt. Terry Wood, who ran the Salvation Army shelter, said the real number is 5 to 10 percent. He said in the nine-year history of the Washington Street shelter, there were no incidents involving sex offenders nor assaults by any shelter residents on members of the public.

The Long-Term Solution

Nonetheless, there's still some untoward behavior by a small percentage of homeless people, and yes, it can have a negative effect on downtown, something Hartford can ill afford. More daytime activities for homeless people work crews? certainly would help.

The ultimate answer is in the "Journey Home" project developed in 2007 by Mayor Eddie Perez's commission to end homelessness. This calls for, among other things, the construction of more than 2,000 units of supportive housing in the region.

The emphasis should be on that last word: The majority of South Park Inn residents last year were not from Hartford. This is a regional problem.

But the concern this week is the short term. City leaders are trying to increase capacity in existing shelters to buy themselves more time to find another site. They are trying to balance interests and accommodate the business people. The Center Church annex is not an ideal site. Perhaps the state could provide a building? The Armory?

But if the city cannot find another site, it will have to use the annex. The downtown community should endure it charitably, knowing it will close in the early spring. If the annex is well supervised, we don't think the residents will shoot down the rising star.

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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