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Coming In From The Cold

A no-freeze shelter for the homeless in Hartford

By Jeff Cohen

November 24, 2010

There was a discussion in Hartford last year over where to put an emergency, no-freeze shelter for men. In the end, the state stepped in and offered to house the shelter in an old church building near the state capitol.

This year, the state building is undergoing repairs and can't be used. WNPR's Jeff Cohen has this report about where those in need of a warm bed will go.

The Immaculate Conception shelter lives in a century-old church building that's no longer a church. Its Park Street basement is full of bunk beds and lockers, and they're all filled, every night, with the bodies and belongings of men who need a place to sleep. Rich Luchansky is the shelter's associate director. He says last year's no freeze shelter near the Hartford courthouses worked, but it had its issues.

"And they started seeing people walking up to the no-freeze shelter door and maybe they'd be carrying a bottle of booze with them. And, 'Oh my god what are these people are doing and who are they and where are they coming from. It certainly got resolved, but the population became visible."

It's a population Luchansky says isn't just Hartford's problem.

"It's a regional problem. There are people that come here from Andover, they'll come from Cheshire, they'll come from Pennsylvania, they'll come from Puerto Rico, they'll come from New Britain. Yeah, some come from Hartford, But I wouldn't say at all it's overwhelming."

This year's no freeze shelter will be in the same building that houses Immaculate's regular shelter. With some financial help from the city, the basement will be for those escaping the cold; upstairs, the old church sanctuary will be converted from office space to sleeping space for regular shelter users.

"So this is the really lovely sacristy, if you're Catholic. And this is the church proper. The choir is full of donated clothing."

"All these cubicles used to be case managers' little mini-offices, but as we walk down you'll see that we've made little, sort of, bedrooms. So that there's 20 people who are going to receive the perk of having only another person sleeping next to them in this little cubicle as opposed to bunks lining up like you saw downstairs."

Different rooms for different types of shelter users. Michael, who would only give his first name, says he has lived in homeless shelters on and off for the past eight or ten years.

"You got regular shelter people, you got people who use the shelter for when they get thrown out of a relationship, or have an argument with their girlfriend, you got some people who use the shelter to come in for eat, you got some people who use the shelter only when it's necessary or they feel that it's necessary to use the shelter when it's cold."

Those people, who use the shelter only as an absolute last resort, are the ones Michael calls die-hards.

"Die hards only come in when it's cold because they don't trust or they rather do their drugs or alcohol is no longer keeping them warm or its too cold to go out there to hustle to get drugs. It's unbearable to go out there, you know what I'm saying, and beg for money."

"When you see the hustlers stop hustling, then you know it's getting cold. When they tell you it's no money out there, it ain't no money out there because they're the die-hards."

Michael says shelters like these aren't meant to be homes. Still, they're vital.

"Because I can win the lottery tomorrow and get up out of here, you know, but if I get up out of here, for every time one shelter person make it, it's five or ten behind them. You going to always have homeless people, whether it's me, him, you sitting here doing an interview, you might be here. I've known people in the shelter with degrees that were on top. Homelessness, you know what I'm saying, is no one certain class of person. It can happen to anybody."

And when it does, Michael says, it's hard.

"Go get yourself something to eat, go find your own hot shower, go find something to do with your time. Don't call no friends, don't give them no money, go out there and find something to do with yourself. See if you can survive for 24 hours without nothing, and nobody helping you. That's homelessness."

Last month, Michael made a change. He was one of 25 shelter clients to move into what's called a supportive housing complex. Now, he has his own room.

"You got your peacefulness back. You could look at it either two ways. Yeah, I look at it that I came out of the shelter and I got a room again. But it's like, I miss being around people. I miss being around people. That's something that gets you going every day."

Every day, from now until the early Spring, the no-freeze shelter will open for men looking to come in from the cold.

Reprinted with permission of Jeff Cohen, author of the blog Capital Region Report. To view other stories on this topic, search Capital Region Report at http://capitalregionreport.wordpress.com/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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