In winter, homelessness becomes physically easier to imagine. The wind cuts into my coat as I hurry inside, and I get that feeling that I couldn’t bear to be out in the cold one more second.
In the refuge of my warm apartment, there’s that sobering thought that there are people at that very second feeling the same chill on a bench or out in the woods, with no other option but a crowded shelter.
And so as the holidays near and it becomes increasingly life-threatening to sleep outside, lots of people make an effort to help. Churches and workplaces hold food and clothing drives, and toy collections for kids living in shelters. These measures surely make a big difference for people during the month or for a child on Christmas.
But while it is important, this seasonal generosity is not enough. Because inevitably, next year it’ll be the same food and clothing drives, the same problem of homelessness, and there is a good chance that some of the same people will be replacing their worn out socks and hats with holiday donations again.
The fact that this cycle is repeating year after year with some of the same individuals can get depressing. These are people who may have severe mental illness, who may have HIV/AIDS, who have been on the street, in shelters, and in the woods for years. It could make you feel like homelessness can never be solved. But people are working to end this problem of long-term homelessness and break the cycle.
Supportive housing apartments provide permanent affordable housing and extra help for people living with mental or physical disabilities and experiencing chronic homelessness. In other words, this type of housing helps the worst-off and therefore it is most beneficial to focus efforts on this group. (For an explanation of this idea, read this great article by Malcolm Gladwell). There is much evidence that this theory, which has been in practice for about a decade, is working.
But the bad news is that the state recently decided to put funding on hold for 150 units of housing that would end homelessness for many individuals and families. The funding was promised as part of the Next Steps supportive housing initiative, but when the time came to announce which agencies won the contracts to build it, the Office of Policy and Management said that the funding is delayed. And so, with this major setback, we enter the holiday season.
Each December, the Governor’s mansion, located at the corner of Prospect and Asylum, is open to visitors. This past weekend when visitors approached at the Governor’s mansion for her holiday tour, they were handed a holiday card urging Governor Rell to keep her promise and fund the 150 units of housing.
This was a hurried attempt carried out by a small number of people, including myself. There wasn’t enough time to assemble a bus of volunteer shelter residents to go on the tour and speak to the Governor, a tactic that has been used in the past. But people seemed receptive to the cards, if only to not seem like Scrooges. I hope that in the midst of all the silk wallpaper and the Lux, Bond, and Green place settings, they didn’t forget the message.
After all the cards ran out, I warmed up by going on the tour. I had hoped to meet the governor and tell her the message personally, but she had gone by that point. The house itself was largely unimpressive and impersonal, which makes sense because the Governor doesn’t actually live in there, preferring to stay at her other place in Brookfield.
The Governor’s two homes seem symbolic not just for our tremendous wealth gap here in the state of Connecticut but of the growing distance between rich and poor nationally as well.
As I left the Governor’s mansion and the long line of excited families and couples yet to see the place, my thoughts turned to another line, a few days ago at the City of Hartford’s Project Homeless Connect. Thursday morning, a few dozen people stood in the otherwise empty lobby of Hartford’s XL Center. With ragged clothing and baggage, this group looked a lot more hard-up than those in line in front of the Governor’s mansion. They stood waiting patiently to a strange soundtrack of “Oh What A Night!” by the Four Seasons and other 70s hits. At nine, they rushed en masse down the stairs.
In the cavernous white room beneath the XL Center’s stadium seating, booths and tables beckoned Podiatry. HIV Screening. Birth Certificates. Suits. Housing. Haircuts. Around the perimeter, red-painted EXIT signs painted onto the wall pointed giant arrows downwards at the doors, as if a person could be lost in the maze of columns and tables forever.
People who are homeless are often in dire need of medical and other services but have a hard time accessing them. This is the rationale behind Homeless Connect – to provide all sorts of care and goods under one roof. It’s a shame it only happens once a year. I imagine it takes a lot of coordination to pull it off.
A man in a dark green trench coat and backpack, one of the first to come down the stairs, rushed from table to table as if unsure exactly what to do or where to go first. Others seemed to know exactly what they wanted and made beelines for the haircut station or the medical screening area.
As the day progressed, those that filtered through the space offered a picture of the face of homelessness. Some wandering through the area seemed to be suffering from mental or physical illness, people likely to benefit greatly from supportive housing.
While many of the early arrivals were men, more and more women began to arrive with one or two children in tow, to try to speak with someone who could help them with housing, food, and other bare necessities. It’s a sad fact that families with children make up the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. Many at the event would not have stood out in a crowd as being homeless.
“I’m not here to take advantage, only what I need,” a 50ish, put-together woman explained.
She wore sunglasses and a matching scarf and hat and seemed embarrassed to be seen at the event, confronting a passing camerawoman who started taking footage without permission. This woman has been homeless since her health failed in the spring of 2006, when she was working as a crossing guard for the City and taking care of her ailing mother. Now she is doubled up with someone else and was looking for a place of her own. Unfortunately, her income, the disability payments, just isn’t enough for rent.
I asked her what she would consider affordable for her income.
“$300 a month.”
And many people released from prison find themselves homeless. One man who recently got out and is living at a shelter in Hartford explained that like most people leaving the system, he had no identification, just a temporary paper ID issued by the Corrections Department. He’d had managed to get a job at a restaurant near the Hartford Wal-Mart and was signed up to go to New Jersey for training, but it fell through when he didn’t get his real ID in time.
Frustrated that the process was taking too long through the shelter, he set out to get the ID himself, with success. Now he begins the search for a job again, in the hopes that he can get enough money saved up to get out of the shelter system.
Those I spoke with were plain about what they needed. A place they could afford. An ID and a job.
There are many others who have disabilities and have been living out on the street or in shelters for a long time. They need the state to keep its promise and fund those 150 units of supportive housing.
Many people depend on holiday donations to keep them warm, and I hope that people continue to be generous in the midst of economic downturn.
But really, we need to be able to envision a world in which we will not have these same needs year over year, and then, we must work towards that vision.