The man sits slumped over, partially covered by a dingy green comforter. He is preternaturally quiet.
He's seated on a mattress that is resting on old tires beneath one of Hartford's bridges. His head is bowed. His left hand — purple and waxy — is splayed on the mattress' edge, frozen in the process of pushing himself upright. Is he dead?
"Papi!" calls Bruce Dean, as the South Park Inn outreach coordinator and supervisor bends to put his hand on the man's back. Dean is with Hartford's dogged homeless-outreach team. He takes the man's hand, pats him on the back, but nothing. The team is out this Thursday morning — as they have been for the past 18 years — urging Hartford's chronically homeless inside. That it is Thanksgiving doesn't matter. The team will be out Christmas and New Year's, too — both of which fall on a Thursday.
But they may be too late for this older, balding man whose eyes are closed, whose skin feels flaccid.
Their clients are the hard-cores, the drunk, high, mentally ill, broken and lost souls who won't come inside to get help, or even to eat a hot meal. Among them are Wes, an articulate older man with white hair combed by lightning, and the nameless man who's camped out in an abandoned dump truck across town, who has taken to using the parking lot around the truck as his toilet. Their numbers include Carl, who may be psychotic, but who calms noticeably around female outreach workers. On this visit, Carl waves an arm at the drainage ditch he's made his home. He's cleaned it up, he says, pointing to a pile of blankets and a battered sofa.
But what of the balding older man sitting upright on the mattress? He spent the night drinking, volunteers a young man camped out in a nest of blankets nearby.
"Papi!" Dean shouts again.
Dean joined South Park's staff to stabilize his work history. That was 18 years ago. This stuff gets in your blood. You hunt for places where people will hide, and you get them — gently and respectfully, using charm or humor — to come inside. And sometimes you plug them into the ever-shrinking social services that are out there.
"Papi!" he shouts, as he quickly pulls the comforter from the man's head. Still no response. Another worker dials 911. Outreach workers are careful about calling authorities. Though Hartford police generally leave squats alone, they must move in if people complain. Desperate people — who are trespassing — make homes in the weirdest places. Papi's younger buddy has lined his shoes carefully on one of the girders. There is a half-full water jug, a stack of magazines. Put a few walls up, and this could be a bachelor pad.
When the young man hears that an ambulance is on its way, and there might be police, he moves quickly to leave. He's out on parole and is supposed to be staying at his cousin's place. As he pulls on his boots, Dean reiterates that he's welcome at South Park, and he hands him his business card, what he calls the "get-out-of-jail-free" card. Any time, night or day, the young man can present that at South Park, and though the shelter's always full, they'll find a place for him, says Dean.
An Aetna ambulance quickly moves up the dirt path to Papi's site, and two uniformed and earnest young people emerge. They move efficiently. Dean helps lift Papi over the girder to the waiting gurney, though he's so stiff, he can barely be made to lie back. As the gurney is pushed around the corner of the ambulances, Papi's eyelids flutter. He is moved into the warmth of the ambulance and hooked up to IVs. He's suffering from hypothermia, an ambulance worker tells Dean, and they pull away.
The team discusses their next stop. Did they save Papi's life? Hard to say. There are more Papis waiting, and little time spent wondering. And next week they'll be back at it, beating the bushes for lost souls who've made homes where they can.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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