For Many, Living Beneath A Bridge Is Preferable To Shelters
December 05, 2010
Like a hymn at a revival, the invitation is gently tendered: Come home. Ye who are weary, come home.
And just like the invitation at those revivals, the message falls on deaf ears. Once Hartford's hard-core homeless end up in a hovel beneath one of the city's bridges, they tend to stay. These are the people too sick, too high, too broken to trust that anything can save them. Here, at least, the rules are clear: Block the wind. Be invisible. Guard your stuff. Check your toes and fingers for frostbite. Trust no one.
The people beneath the bridges have exhausted families, friends and options, and no amount of cajoling or logic can convince them they need to come indoors, where social services — though stretched thin — might put them on the road to a healthier kind of independence.
Nothing works — until, that is, it finally does. One more visit from the Hartford Homeless Outreach team — this one on Thanksgiving morning — and one of the hard-cores just might come out from beneath the bridge.
There's no science to it, so the team is out every Thursday while it's still dark, before the hard-core leave their piles of mattresses and cast-off blankets for points unknown. Hartford's homeless shelters are traditionally filled to bursting — South Park turned away people 535 times just in October — but somehow, they'll find room. It's the story of the prodigal son (and occasional daughter) all over again.
To be effective, you must be consistent, says Brian Baker of South Park Inn. If you say you'll bring someone socks, do that. One man with a crazy eye and a bad reputation asks for boots, size 101/2 — black boots because, he says, he's "doing some security work." Baker says he'll look.
Black boots, the man says again. He already has brown. Of course Baker will find some; he always does.
The man barks out his order from inside a viaduct, behind a gate of trash and discarded wood. It smells of human feces here, and bottles litter the ground.
Beneath one bridge rests a neatly made mattress with a small pumpkin as decoration. Scattered around are evidences of drug use. Nearby rests a chunk of concrete that serves as a soccer goal. A family once lived here, complete with chickens. No one knows where they went. Their family found space for them? A social service came through?
Come home, says John Badger, who's been doing this for 18 years with his brother-in-arms, Tony Pignone. They usually see 20 or 25 people a week. It's lighter today because it's Thanksgiving, and people tend to be more forgiving on Thanksgiving. Even the biggest miscreant can find a place at the table today — so what does that say about the handful of men the team finds today in spots they don't advertise because police are prone to clearing the places out? People complain. It's a safety hazard, they say.
Pignone drives a beater van through the quiet streets while Badger teases him. When they're not reaching out to the homeless, they're yanking one another's chain. "You want to drive?" Pignone asks Badger, who'd just shouted at an approaching red light. You've got to have some gallows humor, Badger says later.
In another part of town, the team walks up on Wes, who is sleeping wrapped in a cocoon of sleeping bags. Wes sports an oozing sore on his neck that's been there for years. He is the sole of graciousness as he entertains his guests.
Come home, Baker says to a man named John, whose head pokes around a piece of plywood beneath yet another bridge. He did come inside once, John says, but he was kicked out of South Park for life.
Probably not. South Park is famous for its open-door policy. Baker says he'll check as he hands the man a handful of clean new socks that look like a beacon in the gloom. Later, Baker finds that John hasn't been banned, and he extracts from John a promise to come inside. You never know. This homecoming just might take.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at