I first met Billy at Immaculate Conception homeless shelter in Hartford. Other shelters required their residents to be clean and sober. Immaculate took people as they were — drunk, high, it didn't matter so long as they tried to behave themselves. It made for an interesting clientele.
The shelter was started after a homeless man froze to death in the neighborhood. The program has since expanded, but back then the main concern was catching the men who fell through the city's loosely woven social service net before they hit bottom. Staff members at Immaculate did the best they could (with unbearably limited resources) to keep their clients alive.
The night I met him, Billy was seated on a bench in the basement, and when I, all fresh-faced and shiny, walked in, he asked loudly why he should bother talking to me.
I said that he shouldn't bother talking to me. I said life was too short to spend time twisting strange men's arms.
At that, he grinned, stuck out his hand and said, "You're all right." And then we talked.
The next time I went down those shelter steps, there he was again, confrontational and mouthy. It happened every time I saw him. "Why should I talk to you?" he'd call out, but at least he was grinning.
Like so many of the city's homeless, Billy had a family. He also, at one point, had a career and a home and the kind of life you'd think would be worth keeping, but for whatever reason — I never asked and he never said — he let all that go and spent his days gathering cans and scraps while his family pleaded that he come home.
And then, in the spring of 2000, he borrowed a fishing pole and went off to catch dinner. The police said he slipped, fell into the Connecticut River and drowned. Billy could swim and there were no drugs in his system. I still don't know what happened. I keep his photo framed at home and I think of him every time someone dies on the streets.
We lost 19 Billies this year, 19 people who died without homes. One guy was a Florida native. "We have got to go to St. Pete; you'd just love it," he'd tell the shelter workers, like that was an option. Another was a woman — a rarity, but there you are. Another had been in every shelter in town, a regular on the cots dealing with substance abuse — alcohol, drugs, you name it.
On Monday, those 19 will be remembered at a memorial service at Trinity Episcopal Church, 120 Sigourney St., in Hartford. The service starts at 11. A turkey dinner follows.
The service is part of a national observance held annually. At last year's memorial service in Hartford, the city was buried under a snowstorm. The service went as scheduled, though with sparse attendance.
This year, organizers are expecting 400. Dr. Reza Mansoor, president of Muslim Coalition of Connecticut, will give the call to worship and the sermon. There will be music, a Jewish funeral prayer, said the Rev. Ron Kolanowski of Trinity Episcopal. A Baha'i youth group will set up tables for the dinner and clean up after. The city of Hartford will offer voter registration. There'll be child care, and gifts for participants, including hats, gloves, toothbrushes and the like, as well as containers for participants to take food with them if they want. At least 30 faith groups are pitching in to help, Kolanowski said.
"We're only as strong as our weakest link," Kolanowski said. "It's in our best interest to take care of our homeless. The truth is that most of us are one paycheck away from their situation. I think some of the far-right folks in politics have convinced Americans that we are closer to becoming Bill Gates than we are to being homeless."
In fact, the majority of us are closer to Billy, bless his cantankerous heart.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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