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Coalition Director Advocates Tirelessly For The Homeless

Monica Polanco

June 27, 2010

As executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, Carol Walter travels between two worlds one inhabited by homeless men, women and children and another one populated by people with power.

Walter, 50, feels her mission is clear.

"I work for homeless people they're my boss," she said.

Walter complimented as a "pit bull" and "true advocate" by state and national leaders oversees a Hartford-based nonprofit that seeks to mobilize homeless advocates across the state. The coalition's director for about three years, Walter is part of a growing national effort to end homelessness.

She has attracted the attention of Mark Johnston deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for homelessness, HIV/AIDS and veterans programs.

Johnston visited Connecticut about a month ago at Walter's request. The assistant secretary helped create the federal government's plan released last week to end by 2015 homelessness among veterans and people who are chronically homeless and to end by 2020 homelessness among families, youths and children.

"Rarely do I get an invitation like hers, which was: 'I want to make sure that we're targeting our funds in a strategic way. Can you please come and talk about that,' " Johnston said.

Johnston said that typically, homeless advocates across the country ask him to "come talk about homelessness with no real focus on what they want to accomplish."

Connecticut, he said, is one of few states that funds its own housing vouchers and in which advocates work closely with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

"The state is really doing an impressive job in many ways, I think in large part because of her leadership," Johnston said.

A homeless advocate for more than 20 years, Walter last year introduced the state Department of Social Services to a new concept now funded by the federal government to provide housing and services for people on the verge of becoming homeless or who are homeless. That program, which was pioneered outside Connecticut and rolled out nationally last year, was based on research that showed the value of preventing homelessness by providing such services as help paying security deposits and utilities.

Now, Walter can add the federal government's goal of ending homelessness boosted by an 11.5 percent increase in the federal budget for 2011 to her quiver. For the first time, the plan which previously targeted only chronically homeless people seeks to provide a range of programs for populations with different needs.

"The exciting thing about the federal plan is that they are really talking about doing it all at once," she said. "We need to target interventions to those who need them and we need to do it all at once if we're going to really change this."

Walter said her coalition now focuses on grass-roots organizing, leadership development and analysis. The coalition supervises the state's annual point-in-time homeless count and provides the data to state and federal agencies.

Social Services Commissioner Michael Starkowski said Walter is available "at the drop of a dime" and works with other groups including the state's Office for Workforce Competitiveness to find creative solutions.

Starkowski said Walter's assistance was especially helpful during a cold snap two years ago, when his department sought to quickly provide shelter beds.

"It would have been difficult and near impossible to set up a system on a moment's notice to accommodate people who would be, but for the grace of God, living in the streets that night in severe cold," he said.

Walter said that even as a child, she was drawn to homeless people.

"It's because they are just so real," she said. "I just feel like they are so equipped to prosper if they weren't being asked to run the race with a broken leg."

Walter's career began unofficially in the 1980s during her job as a press writer for the late Miriam Friedlander, a fiercely progressive New York City councilwoman who represented Manhattan's Lower East Side. Back then, homelessness was beginning to explode in the Lower East Side, where Walter lived.

She faced the problem head-on as a programs manager of Columbus House in New Haven, then cultivated her skills at other shelters in Stamford and Hartford, writing grants, learning to manage employees, raising money and helping to write 10-year plans to end homelessness.

Her "first favorite job of all time," she said, was managing McKinney Shelter for single men in Hartford in the 1990s.

It was at the shelters where Walter said she learned to be honest with people about their problems without shaming them, and where she learned that shelters could provide a sense of community for some homeless men, despite the harshness of sharing a room with 40 other people.

Though she no longer works directly with homeless people, Walter said she's in the right place at the Connecticut homeless coalition. Her memories of homeless clients some of whom struggled with addictions but who retained a measure of personal accountability help inform her work.

"I obviously rely on my staff to articulate what it's like, but I also have these guys in my head," she said. "If I am at the table with fellow advocates, I think about, 'How would I explain this to someone who's experienced homelessness?' "

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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