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Reaching Those Left Out In The Cold

Column By SUSAN CAMPBELL

December 19, 2007

Hartford has a no-freeze policy, which means no one gets left outside unless, of course, it's during the day, and God help you if it's during the day on a cold and snowy Sunday.

Seasonal overflow shelters organizations that operate when regular shelters are full provide an evening haven for the homeless, and that's important. But because of staffing issues, some of the city's year-round shelters like the Open Hearth close their doors during the day, and many businesses that might be a warm haven during the week aren't open on Sundays.

Last Sunday, by several counts, 30 or 40 men were turned out onto Hartford's streets to face the elements during the day. A handful found a place to spend the storm, says Rose Fichera-Eagen, who runs a Sunday-only soup kitchen at Christ Church Cathedral. Most of them didn't.

Thankfully, no one died, says Fichera-Eagen, who is also a board member at South Park Inn.

Carol Walter, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition To End Homelessness, says it's never good to be homeless in Hartford, but homelessness on a cold and snowy Sunday is particularly bad. Shelters are society's emergency rooms. A lack of staff and a concern for the families they're already serving prevents some shelters that stay open all day from acting as drop-in centers for clients from shelters that close. Michael Woolworth, Open Hearth's development director, said their men were allowed to stay inside a couple of hours longer than usual, but daytime Sunday is definitely a gap in the capital city.

And so the 30 or 40 scattered, which was ironic, because just last week the city held its first ever Project Homeless Connect, where volunteers and representatives from city, state and federal agencies set up tables at St. Patrick-St. Anthony's Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry to offer help with housing, jobs and medical care.

Mayor Eddie Perez himself held open the door, and first in line were the Delgado sisters. Felicita is 19, and Esthefenie "Bubbles," to her friends is 20. They were with their mother and an older sister. All would like to leave South Park Inn and have a home and a regular life.

It is a daunting thing to stand on the other side of the glass and watch people like the Delgado sisters politely press forward. If you didn't know better, you'd think they were lining up for a bus or a movie, but listen to them, and here's a mother with a baby and no home, no car, no insurance, standing near a guy who just came in from under the bridge, white hair awry, who jokes, "If I'm going to be an outcast, I might as well look the part."

And here's a kid who says he's an addict who just can't get out of his own way.

"If my mom knew I was here, she'd be sad, but at least she'd know I'm alive," he says, but he won't give his name. Mom, if you're looking for a polite young man in his early 20s with red hair and a chipped front tooth, he's on the street, but he's OK, and he says he'll call you.

The Delgados have been on the street for two years, and last week Bubbles led the way through the tables offering aid. On her way to find a coat that would fit, she reached a closed door, looked slyly at her sister, and said, all bravado, "Open the damn door" which is kind of the point of Project Homeless Connect, isn't it? The project started in San Francisco, which has a pretty good handle on dealing with homelessness. Hartford's come a long way, but there's further to go. You need people like Walter doing policy work, and you need people doing triage, like Sister Maureen Faenza of House of Bread, among her other good works.

And you need people and programs to stand in the gap. If you say you have a no-freeze policy, then it should be the policy no matter the time, day or weather especially the weather. Carlos Rivera, who runs Hartford's health and human services department, said the city offers enough services so that no one should be stuck outside, and the city is looking into what happened Sunday. Thankfully, no one died, stresses Fichera-Eagen, but that's cold comfort.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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