The poor will always be with us, says one of the less utopian verses in the Book of John, but that doesn't mean the poor should have to sleep outside.
If we were serious about eliminating homelessness, we'd stop arguing about where the homeless should be temporarily housed in Hartford, and we would start looking at the bigger picture.
Solving homelessness is not just providing beds for the night. It's providing jobs, affordable housing, mental health services, substance abuse services, services for veterans and victims of domestic violence, and many other services that are in short supply these days. Some organizations — such as Hartford's Commission to End Homelessness — get it. Others? Well ...
The cold fact is that having people out on the streets costs too much in terms of social services and emergency medical care. We build more prisons, hire more police, and the dam still leaks. In the end, we all pay.
The capital city is bending under the weight of so many homeless people vying for too few services. Shelters are full, temperatures are plummeting, and a recent dust-up over where to put people who might otherwise be curled up under a bridge showed our ugly underbelly.
The homeless are our canaries. They are a prime indicator of just how bad things are. At Hartford's Trinity Episcopal Church on Monday, about 200 people gathered to read the names of and light candles for homeless people who died in the previous year. I expected two, maybe three names, but by the service's end 20 candles flickered in the nave.
The next night, activists fought a bitter wind to set up a tent in front of Hartford's Municipal Building. They held signs and served hearty soup and rice and beans to protest earlier protesters who didn't want the city's no-freeze shelter at a church downtown. In response to those concerns, the no-freeze shelter was moved to an abandoned church building owned by the state just a few blocks away.
Problem solved? Hardly, but it's what we do with our needy. We move them like figures on a chessboard with the hope that Things Will Get Better Soon. A new regime will take over, a wealthy donor will give money, the economy will recover and we'll all join hands and dance in the sun. And every year we let the seasons do our solving. April brings warmer temperatures and we move on to other issues until it gets cold again, and the holidays roll around and we are once again reminded of those who live without.
At last year's point-in-time census, surveyors found 4,154 homeless people in the state, including 801 children. Seventeen percent of the single adults surveyed were on probation. From an 2008 Office of Legislative Research report, nearly half of Hartford's homeless say they are without an address because they were released from jail and had nowhere to go. So there's a place to start.
Tuesday's protest included representatives from, among others, Food Not Bombs, the Connecticut AIDS Resource Coalition, the Charter Oak Cultural Center, and HartBeat Ensemble. Hartford council member Luis Cotto was there, and he brought students from the city's Law and Government Academy. Greg Tate of the theater group said that not everyone downtown was angry about the original site of the no-freeze shelter. Some people understand that until we talk about the big picture, homeless people need to be indoors. If we are upset by them when we see them downtown, all the better. That discomfort might move us to do something.
In the end, we're all on the same side. It is possible to talk about economic development and taking care of the homeless in the same breath. We can bring to our long-term decisions the understanding that we sink or swim together. As David Rozza of Food Not Bombs said, "We want people to start getting their empathy back. We want to redirect the conversation and bring it back to humanity."
Amen. And onward.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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