I didn’t think the story would end this way.
Sal Pinna has been homeless for 20 years, since he came to Connecticut from his native Long Island to enroll in a substance abuse program.
Pinna is a 52-year-old man who loves the Mets, Batman, and Dean Martin. He wants a home, but the myriad forms and appointments that are required have proven to be beyond him. Pinna has diabetes, and he’s been diagnosed with depression, and a few years ago, bipolar disorder.
"The doctor came up to me -- one of the doctors came up to me -- and says, 'Mr. Pinna, I hope you know that your diagnosis was bipolar.' I said, 'Oh what else is new?'" Pinna remembered.
These last few weeks have been particularly challenging. On March 31, Hartford’s no-freeze shelter -- where Pinna was staying -- closed, and Pinna and 49 other people were out on the streets.
Some of those 50 men found shelter beds, but not Pinna. He moved instead to a spot in Hartford to sleep rough. He said he was staying "someplace safe."
"Let’s put it that way. I don’t want nobody to know," Pinna said.
Despite the obvious dangers of sleeping outside, Pinna was dismissive of his situation. "Nothing new to me," he said. "I’ve been able to stay warm. I’ve got this thing, a sleeping bag."
But over the next few days, Pinna was starting to suffer. He visited soup kitchens for two meals a day, and symptoms from his diabetes kicked in. He had nightmares, and any attempt to get a shelter bed ended in disappointment. He blamed favoritism, that people were being housed ahead of him.
"They told me that every place is filled up," Pinna said. "I’m thinking to myself, ‘How could that be possible?’"
In fact, it wasn’t possible. There were shelter beds available, and even shelter staff on the lookout for him, but this is part of the challenge of housing someone like Pinna. Accessing a shelter bed meant he had to show up at particular times, and that sometimes proved beyond him. Forms confuse him.
Earlier, during a long slog trying to get a replacement Social Security card, at least once Pinna went to a downtown office, saw a long line, and left. But in his mind, that brief encounter counted as visiting the office.
Over the next few days, Pinna’s generally indomitable spirit began to flag. He talked about how other people viewed him. "I’ve heard people say to me, who’s this bum? Who’s this low-life?" he said. "I mean that. I’m a human being, just like they are, but something happened to me. That’s all there is to it. That’s all I can say."
Earlier, Pinna was given a vulnerability test that assigned to him a two. The higher the number – 20’s the highest -- the greater the likelihood that housing would be found quicker. Just for comparison’s sake, I took the same test and scored a four. By that measure, my vulnerability is greater than Pinna’s.
The vulnerability test is just one measure by which people can be housed. But it’s a big one, and the variation of scores points out another challenge of a system that’s meant to put them in permanent housing with supportive services, as necessary. The system as it exists is far from consumer-friendly, and part of the 100-day challenge is devoted to building a new system that works for the people it’s supposed to serve.
The irony here is that the place Pinna slept recently, when he was sleeping outdoors, he was within sight of the State House in Hartford.
At one point, Pinna got into a downtown altercation with Hartford police, but a friend of his interrupted to tell the officer that Pinna is homeless, and dealing with developmental issues. The officer gave the friend his card, and said he would look out for him. That brief encounter with the police cost money. Taxpayers pay for every interaction with a person who is homeless, insurance premiums pay for health care of people who are homeless and have no alternative but the emergency departments. Keeping Pinna on the streets costs far more money than getting him housed.
Except for that one act of a police officer’s kindness, it looked like everything was spiraling downward, and I worried that I would have to report Pinna’s death.
But then the efforts of several people working on the 100-day challenge paid off. Pinna’s name appeared on a list at a housing meeting last Wednesday and from there, things moved quickly. In last Friday’s cold morning mist, we met at Charter Oak Cultural Center. I asked him what permanent housing would mean to him. "Let’s put it this way," he said. "It would put an end to a 20-year nightmare."
And then this happened: Sarah Simonelli, of Chrysalis Center, walked up and introduced herself to Pinna. Chrysalis Center has a program, CABHI, Cooperative Agreement to Benefit Homeless Individuals, that provides intensive case management to people like Pinna. Simonelli offered Pinna a berth in the program, which means for nine months he would have someone walking him through all kinds of services he desperately needs. Pinna sat quietly.
Simonelli said, "The second thing we have is a subsidized housing voucher for you. We can get you into an apartment, and with that, we can start looking as soon as you want, even today."
"I’d do it today," Pinna said. "I’d do it right now if I had the opportunity. The sooner the better."
Though his reaction to the news was muted, inside the classroom, Pinna acknowledged that this was huge.
"I feel a little bit better," he laughed.
"You’ll feel better when you have the keys in your hand," Simonelli said.
Pinna agreed. "I’ll feel ten times better when I have the keys in my hand. The nightmare will be over, let’s put it that way," he said.
And then, just before class started, Pinna sat looking at the floor and munching a Pop Tart someone gave him for breakfast. He said quietly – so quietly I had to ask him to repeat himself: “I need to hug somebody.”
Pinna has been looking at apartments this week.
The goal of the 100-day challenge in Hartford is to house 100 people who are chronically homeless by the campaign’s end, in June. That’s 99 more Sal Pinnas in apartments, receiving services they need, working jobs they want, and already planning – as is Pinna – the first Italian meal he’s going to cook for his friends in his brand new home.
Listen below to the audio for the story:
Susan Campbell was a long-time columnist 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.