It was a day of unexpected luxury for Roy Anthony Williams.
Accustomed as he is to walking the city's streets with a cane, in worn-out shoes with holes in them, Williams instead spent Wednesday morning having his feet washed by nurses, his toes soaking in a blue-colored crystal solution.
The foot washings and pedicures were among the unanticipated, much-appreciated points of comfort that greeted hundreds of homeless men, women and children who went to the St. Patrick-St. Anthony Franciscan Center, where homeless providers had gathered in force to offer them care, compassion and hope, along with food, clothing and shelter. The foot bathing, provided by nurses from Charter Oak Health Center, proved irresistible to Williams and others, who left the nurses' station wearing smiles and warm socks.
"We weren't smiling like this when we got here," said Williams, 53, who had found it hard to wait in line, balancing on his cane with the help of a friend.
The washings were more than just the spa treatment: They allowed the nursing staff to evaluate the person's general health and spot problems, such as diabetes, which was detected in at least one case.
"I've washed feet in my nursing practice," said Ann Dodge, who went to the outing for the homeless Wednesday to connect with people who generally avoid medical care. "It's a great way to get to know someone. You can ask them about their health. They are always walking and walking. This is a nice way to let someone relax. We do this to build trust."
Although the foot washing was popular, so was the makeshift closet, where hundreds of winter coats, toys and backpacks were distributed. People waited in long lines inside the Church Street parish center to get the feel of donated goose down and cashmere overcoats. They also ate bologna sandwiches, bagels and doughnuts and had conversations about how to move out of shelters and into transitional living accommodations and permanent housing.
The event, Project Homeless Connect, was part of a federal, state and city initiative to change the way that social workers, employment agencies, health care and housing providers deliver services to the homeless.
Philip F. Mangano, the point man for President Bush's domestic homeless campaign, said that the "Homeless Connect" events should be viewed in the same way as sitting down with a neighbor in trouble.
Mangano said that the program's style, borrowed from the city of San Francisco, has spread in the past three years to 152 U.S. cities whose elected leaders say they want to end homelessness within the next 10 years. "It's time to end it and not just maintain it," Mangano said.
To help meet that goal, the federal government has budgeted $4.4 billion for direct services to the homeless this year. The state of Connecticut, which counted more than 3,000 homeless individuals and families in a survey in January, will receive $25 million this year, or $9 million more than allocated in 2000. The city of Hartford has received $4.5 million, more than double the amount it received seven years ago.
This boost in funding comes at the same time as the number of homeless people nationwide has declined, said Mangano, who is executive director of the federal government's Interagency Council on Homelessness.
In addition to visiting Hartford, Mangano went to similar events Wednesday in New Britain and Middletown. Today, he is expected in Windham.
Mangano, who along with Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez showed up to greet the homeless at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Center, said he thought that simply being there might change some states of mind among the homeless. "They were surprised. ... How many times is a homeless person going to be touched in an affirming way? If we want to solve this problem, we have to do it in a coordinated way. So, often when we do it as individually, we won't connect."
For many who sat at the dining tables in the center, the program seemed to be working. Homeless people who normally shun shelters appeared after hearing about the distribution of coats, meals and services.
The majority were single men who had fallen on hard times and spent time in prison. There were few families after 11 a.m. Nine city shelters were represented, as were medical teams offering free HIV/AIDS testing, diabetes and dental checks from Community Health Services and other organizations.
Danielle Dillullo, a 28-year-old recovering drug addict from Bridgeport, accepted all of the services available.
"I took advantage of every medical service they had. My HIV test came up negative. I was happy about that," she said.
By midday Wednesday, all 118 beds at South Park Inn were full. It would have been easy for South Park representative Tina Inferrera to turn away the tall, lanky man sitting next to her, and simply refer him to workers for another shelter. Instead, she listened to his story. He had been on the streets for two years, and typically did not sleep at shelters.
"I told him to come at 4:30 p.m. We have no shelter beds right now, but we can put you on the sofa," Inferrera said. She said that she made an exception for the man because she knew that he had stood in a long line to talk with her. If she had turned him away, or asked him to come back, she said that she would have lost him to the street on a day before the weather forecasters were predicting a heavy winter storm.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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