It's not yet daylight, and the capital-city streets are cloaked with mist on this Thanksgiving morning. A cluster of clients standing at the methadone clinic appears through the fog like specters. The clinic door will open soon.
Just down the street, volunteers gather at South Park Inn, one of Hartford's full-service homeless shelters. As if the shelters aren't full enough — and they are — these volunteers are going under the city bridges to find more clients. Yes, it is counter-intuitive — there are no beds and services are stretched to the breaking point — but the volunteers (among them longtime advocate John Badger and Brian Baker, South Park's assistant director) are worried more about the people they aren't reaching than a lack of resources.
Morning mist renders all things pretty, but it doesn't reach under the bridge. Here, things are brutally clear. Too many homeless people (roughly 33,000 in the last 12 months, according to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness) and too few beds equals a broken system.
Baker and others acknowledge that transitional and supportive housing are the long-term answer, but while awaiting funding and permits and such, men and women live under bridges, in cardboard lean-tos, next to the tracks.
For this foray, Baker has purchased toiletries, socks, underwear, sweat shirts, and towels, and stuffed them into donated gym bags, which he and the others will hand out with stuffed bagged lunches. They will encourage the people to come indoors, though these are the hard-core. Some people live under the bridges because they hear voices. Some hear voices until they drown them out with alcohol or drugs, says Badger, but if they are the hard-core, they are up against hard-core volunteers, people who take their Thanksgiving morning to coax them into the system.
The system is overloaded, but it beats under the bridge, where the dirt is packed flat from foot traffic, the ground is littered with cigarette butts and clothes fester in piles.
"Homeless outreach!" calls Baker, and a pile of quilted packing blankets covers on a dirty mattress moves quickly to reveal a man with disheveled white hair. He stays burrowed and squinting, and offers his name — Wes — and a brief history. He has recently left a nursing home.
"If you read the Courant, you know why," he says. The Courant has just completed a multi-part series on the malfeasance of the owner of a health-care facility chain. Wes has insurance, he says, but he is reluctant to say more to Peter N. McMullen, a volunteer who by day works with homeless veterans in the state.
Wes also has the dreaded and misunderstood MRSA, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. Later, McMullen, who is also a registered nurse, will say that public ignorance has made Wes a modern-day leper. Wes says he has been banned from shelters; he has an open wound on his neck. He desperately needs a shower. Baker says MRSA is like tuberculosis. If a hospital says potential clients are no longer contagious, they are welcome at his shelter. With a promise to do some thinking about his case, Baker asks if Wes needs clothes.
"Clothes aren't my problem, man," Wes says.
The volunteers later find a veteran, Vincent, wrapped in yet another tumble of blankets under yet another bridge. So that he can get information on Vincent's benefits, McMullen asks, "Do you trust me with your Social Security number?" Vincent doesn't. McMullen asks if he needs a cap, and removes his to hand over. Vincent is reluctant, but McMullen insists, and says later, "You haven't done homeless outreach until you come back naked." Over the years, he and Badger have given the shoes off their feet, their coats, he said.
Later, the volunteers will disperse to their football games, their turkey. The morning mist will burn off, and Wes and Vincent, ghosts beneath the city streets, will root through their donations. Maybe they'll wander into a shelter somewhere. Then again, maybe they won't.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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