On April 23, after 20 years on the streets, Salvatore Pinna moved into a Hartford apartment. It was his first ever.
Pinna's is one of the success stories for Greater Hartford’s 100-day challenge to greatly reduce chronic homelessness.
Pinna spent the first night on his apartment floor, but the household goods and furniture began arriving the next day. As his friends and advocates gathered for a celebratory breakfast at Sal’s place, he marveled that his dream had come true. "No more sleeping outside, no more sleeping in the shelters. I got my own bathroom, my own bedroom, living room, kitchen," Pinna said as he clapped his hands.
Pinna is one of 60 chronically homeless people who have been housed during the Greater Hartford 100-Day Campaign. The 100-Day team has set a goal to house 100 people by June 19. It’s been a work in progress.
When advocates realized that proper identification kept many clients from being housed, they held a Document Fair on May 9 at Chrysalis Center in Hartford. They worked with roughly 165 people to get birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and other proper IDs. Advocates say something as simple as Hartford’s discussion of a municipal ID can literally open doors for people who have been homeless.
Matt Morgan, executive director of Journey Home, the 100-Day Campaign lead agency was at the fair. "I think it will be a great step," he said. "I feel certain many landlords would accept a municipal ID, whereas right now if you don’t have a Connecticut ID, then you’re out of luck."
Jaime Torres was standing in line at the document fair. He injured his hip delivering medical supplies, and for the last year has been living with a friend in East Windsor. To get housing, he needs a birth certificate. "I used to deliver medical equipment. I used to jump off a truck instead of just using stairs," he said. "If you jump off the truck 40 times a day, and you work five to six times a week, that's 200 times a week."
Torres, like others, is often just one piece of documentation away from housing.
The kind of homelessness we know now really only came about in the last 30 or so years. Sister Pat McKeon started St. Vincent de Paul in Middletown, and she just retired as the executive director of Hartford’s Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation. She remembers when homelessness started to become so entrenched. "There have always been some people who are homeless," she said, "but I’m told that even during the Depression if a person was able to work and get a job, they probably had a place to live. That is not true now."
Historians say that along about the late '70s or early '80s, people teetering on the edge saw deep cuts to federal assistance programs. Housing costs were rising while housing options like single-room occupancy hotels -- SROs -- were shrinking. In an effort to improve cities, developers tore down the old flop hotels and replaced them with housing that those former SRO residents could not afford, and state hospitals were shrinking, or closing. "We lost units of housing -- SROs, apartments, units at state hospitals -- we lost all of these," said McKeon.
So what McKeon calls a “perfect storm” tore through housing in Connecticut, and left what in its wake? Nothing. No housing options for people who earlier at least had a place to lay their heads. "We didn’t invest as a country or a state," she said. "We didn’t continue to invest in the same rate we had." You won’t find too many people who will say that places like Mansfield Training School and Hospital or Norwich State Hospital should have stayed open, but as McKeon says, those places at least provided some semblance of stable housing.
The Norwich facility, which opened in 1904 as the Norwich State Hospital for the Insane, once housed more than 3,000 people.
"When they went into the state hospitals, chances are they didn’t come out," McKeon remembered. "There were no medications. There was nothing to help a person deal with their mental illness, get better, cope with their daily lives. Most people who went in stayed there."
McKeon realized that these hospitals acted as permanent housing. "You close a hospital in Fairfield, in Norwich, in part of Middletown that had 1000's of beds, you’ve now lost thousands of units of housing. Who knows how many of those patients could today, with a better understanding of mental illness, live fruitful lives in their own community."
There was no back-up plan for those who were displaced. Some were moved to other hospitals, such as Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, but some were simply discharged. The public policy, says McKeon, was draconian.
We have never known precisely how to handle abject poverty. In colonial times, Connecticut had laws on the books that said town inhabitants could “warn out” so-called “transients” whom townsfolk felt were unsuitable for their town.
Through the years, homelessness was considered a temporary situation brought on by an act of God -- such as fire or flood -- and not a permanent condition.
Most of Hartford’s homeless shelters opened roughly 35 years ago as a reaction to the growing homeless population brought about by the conditions described by McKeon. There was a sense at that time that homelessness had been ignored and could be no longer.
Immaculate Conception Shelter & Housing Corporation -- now ImmaCare -- was started in 1981 after Father James M. Donagher, then a priest at the Immaculate Conception Church on Park Street, found a man frozen to death on the street. "It was a young kid came and said ‘Father, come!’," he said. "So I went down and the poor gentleman was leaning against a stoop in the rear of this building and he was dead. Two days after Christmas."
The young man was from a prominent Mexican family, Donagher said, but he drank. The next night, the priest could not stand the thought of another person freezing to death. He vowed he wouldn’t let that happen again. "I didn’t ask. I just, the next night, I opened up the basement of the church as a shelter," he said. "I eventually talked to the archbishop. He used to give me money for it. He said ‘You know, I just want you to know if you’d asked me permission I’d have said no, because of the liability.’ I said, ‘I understand that.’ He said, ‘But you didn’t ask.’"
That first night, he said, there were four men and one woman. There were no beds. The guests settled onto desk chairs. There was just one bathroom. Parishioners volunteered to cook meals, make beds, keep the shelter open, but it was all done without permits or permission. When the city health department threatened to close him down, Donagher stood firm. "I said fine," he remembered. "But you’re going to have to carry me out."
ImmaCare grew to include an emphasis on housing, including opening Casa de Francisco, a 50-unit supportive housing across the street from the shelter. Donagher supported the shift, as he does the new approach to homelessness embodied in the 100-Day Campaign: That homelessness is preventable, and that Connecticut can see an end to it.
Sister Pat McKeon agreed. "In the long run, this saves money," she said. "Having that person who has been homeless for 20 years, my guess is they’ve been in and out of shelters, they’ve been in and out of emergency rooms, maybe in and out of the state hospitals, maybe in and out of detox, all of that is really expensive."
McKeon said that a day in the state hospital would cost more than two months rent, full subsidy. "So where’s the efficiency here?" she said. "You get that person into housing then they are going to go on with their lives, and they’re not going to need that subsidy going forward. I believe we could end homelessness. The question is, do we have the will to do it?"
For Sal, an apartment is the first step in a long road to self-sufficiency. Next stop? A job, and the knowledge that sometimes, with the right amount of will and support, really good things can happen.
Listen below to hear the story that aired on WNPR's Where We Live:
Susan Campbell is a contributor at The Hartford Courant. She's also the author of the biography, Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker, and the memoir, Dating Jesus. For the next few months, Campbell and WNPR will follow the progress of Sal Pinna and the 100-day challenge.