December 19, 2005
By STEVE GRANT, Courant Staff Writer
South Park Inn is not some cozy bed-and-breakfast with fluffy down comforters and real maple syrup at breakfast. It is an inn of last resort, the kind of place where you'd be challenged to find two chairs that match, where sheets, pillowcases and blankets are whatever was donated lately.
And every night, the South Park Inn, on Main Street in Hartford, fills up with homeless men, women and children, fair weather and foul, Christmas Day or any other day. They are happy enough that the South Park Inn is there. There is nowhere else.
They get simple but filling meals, like macaroni and cheese or hamburgers, a bed for the night, a shower, a place to wash their clothes. If they have no money and no source of income, there is no charge. Others are charged a fee on a sliding scale based on their financial resources.
Always, the people who run South Park Inn just barely make do. The United Way, the state and the federal government, along with various foundations, corporations and individuals, provide the revenue for a budget of about $1.8 million a year. But in-kind contributions of food, goods and time are a considerable addition to that budget.
For example, 65 percent of the suppers served are donated and often served by civic groups, such as Boy Scout or church organizations, said John R. Ferrucci, the executive director. "You can imagine what those meals would cost," Ferrucci says. The organization, he added, is always looking for more servers.
There are some things the inn never has enough of: food, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, deodorant, laundry detergent, nail clippers, disposable diapers, combs, brushes, blankets, sheets, pillowcases, underwear for men, women and children, flip-flops, towels, first aid supplies, sugar, coffee, tea, salt and pepper. The shelter has an entire wish list available.
And, of course, "money," Ferrucci adds, which can help with bus fare to job interviews and medical appointments and other needs.
Open since 1984, South Park Inn has served as many as 1,900 different people yearly. Lately, however, that figure has fallen to about 1,500 because people are finding it increasingly difficult to leave the shelter. Jobs are scarce, jobs with benefits even more scarce, and soaring property values have sent rents so high they are out of reach to many South Park clients.
"There are so many issues. It is increasingly difficult to move people from an emergency situation like this into a permanent housing situation," Ferrucci said.
South Park offers three programs. An emergency shelter, first opened in 1984, can accommodate up to 85 homeless men, women and children for short stays. The average stay at the moment is about two weeks, and since the inn opened it has served almost 30,000 different people.
"That's one thing I think people don't realize. They assume people occupying beds in places like this are the same people over and over again. And certainly there is a percentage of people here who are returns," Ferrucci said. "But there are lots of new people as well. When we say 30,000, we're saying 30,000 different individuals. These are not repeats."
Some people come for a few days and are never seen again. Others stay several weeks.
The inn also offers a transitional living program that houses as many as 33 men at a time. Last year, 89 different men were involved in the program, which provides temporary housing, in tiny cubicles, while clients seek work, job training or other help - many have addiction or mental health problems - that would enable them to move into permanent housing.
A third program called Plimpton House serves up to 35 homeless men and women who cannot live on their own because of mental illness or other serious limitations.
There are success stories.
Rose Eagen, a member of the organization's board of directors, said one client first took a bed in the emergency shelter, moved to the transitional program as he found work, then progressed to the Plimpton House as he prepared to rent an apartment of his own. He moved into an apartment about six months ago.
"I was around the day he moved and it was the first time he was ever going to live totally independently," she said. "He was so excited. I've never seen such joy and excitement. And he is still working and enjoying his apartment."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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