Standing in Hartford’s downtown library, Salvatore Pinna was over the moon. He met a woman. Life could not be sweeter.
The last time we checked on Pinna, he’d just moved into a Hartford apartment after some 20 years on the street – some of that time, literally on the street.
That rainy April day when he was handed an apartment key, the overflow shelter where he had been staying had closed, and he was bedding down on a donated sleeping bag on the portico of the State Library. If he turned his head just right, he could see the lights of the State Capitol from where he slept.
Pinna was one of the 52 people housed during an incredible 100-day challenge to push as many people who’d been chronically homeless – homeless for an extended period of time, and living with a disability -- through a tangled emergency shelter system into housing. According to Mollie Greenwood, of one of the effort’s lead agencies, Journey Home, another 46 people were matched to housing programs. More have been housed since the challenge ended in June, thanks in no small part to a newly created system where advocates from public and private agencies work together to identify and house the state’s most vulnerable.
Greenwood said that in Hartford, nearly 200 people have been identified and are in various stages of being housed. Similar successful efforts went on around the state this year. More telling: Every person placed in supportive housing in Hartford remains there, at significant savings to the public.
Though this is a multi-faceted population and numbers are hard to come by, in 2012, Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness under Pres. George W. Bush, said that leaving a person on the streets costs anywhere from $35,000 to $150,000 a year. That’s including emergency room visits, ambulance rides, and perhaps encounters with the police, the courts, and the jails. People who are chronically homeless, said Mangano, tend to ricochet among our most expensive services.
Pinna certainly did. He’s diabetic, and he has been diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. Living on the streets, he wasn’t able to manage his health – physical or mental. He occasionally got mad and threw a punch and once, only the intervention of a friend kept him from getting more than a stern warning from Hartford police, who generally get high marks for their interactions with people who are homeless.
A 2012 Knoxville, Tennessee study that looked at the cost of permanent supportive housing said that among the 41 people surveyed, the cost of supportive housing was $12 a day, compared to $72 a day for jail, and $5,027 for hospitalization. For Pinna, a medical issue that could be alleviated by a quick trip to the doctor’s office would be ignored until the issue became a crisis. That sometimes meant a trip to the ED, at significant public cost.
Six months ago, Pinna took to his apartment gleefully. He outfitted his bed with Batman sheets. He accumulated pots, pans and pillows. For a while, he left his backpack in his living room to remind himself of the time when everything he owned fit in there. He began building a life he felt was stolen by forces he didn’t understand.
So the woman was more than a girlfriend for Pinna. She was a brick in the road he’s building toward independence. He met her at Beat of the Street Center for Creative Learning, one of Charter Oak Cultural Center’s programs. That’s where I met Pinna, too, a few years ago. He was glowering from a table up front. As cranky as he looked then, he kept coming back. He was steady, like a penny, and full of quips, jokes, and movie trivia.
Connecticut is on the cutting edge of ending homelessness as we know it. The state already has effectively housed every veteran known to be chronically homeless – the first state in the country to do so. Connecticut is also one of four states to participate in Zero: 2016, an initiative dedicated to setting up systems that will more quickly identify and house veterans and people who are chronically homeless. As part of that goal, Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness’s Brian Roccapriore, said the system to identify and house people is being streamlined, which should mean shorter wait times. Activists and advocates are working to know every person who is homeless by name, where that person is staying, and where they are in the process of being housed, he said.
But the stories of the people who’ve been housed don’t end with a key. They bring with them everything they first took out into the streets, and sometimes, they bring more trauma back. They may struggle, but they succeed with the help of a series of tightly woven safety nets of programs, case managers and neighbors who watch out for one another. In some cases, they watch out for each other. Pinna and a friend named George, who was housed a few months before him, visit one another’s apartments and watch movies together -- such a simple thing, but so huge.
Sara Capen Salomons, a Congregational minister who left the pulpit to find her church among the Sal Pinnas of Connecticut, is the development officer at Journey Home. She met Pinna at a shelter the February night of the Point In Time Count annual homeless census. He was a bit of a hot head who was sometimes kicked out of a shelter for bad behavior. I saw him explode once at Bushnell Park, where people who are homeless know they can go every Wednesday night for a free meal and a haircut. I can’t remember the beef, but Pinna, a short muscular man, moved quickly to protect someone he thought was being threatened. Batman would do no less.
Pinna is a different person now, said Salomons. He has a sparkle in his eye. He’s lost weight. He’s managing his diabetes better, as well as his anger.
But two weeks ago, the woman who meant so much to him asked to take a break from the relationship, and Pinna was plunged back into a dark place. His texts were confused. Why did she do this? Should he try to talk to her? And then Salomons took him for a haircut. Pinna watched his Mets battle their way into the World Series, only to be stopped short by the Kansas City Royals. (When Sal’s team swept past Chicago, Salomons, a fierce Cubs fan, was philosophical. Maybe, she said, it was Sal’s – and the Mets’ – year.) An old girlfriend contacted him, out of the blue.
Pinna started to feel a little better. He is, after all, Batman. And it’s November. He’s grateful for so many things, and as tough a lesson as it is, he knows that the road to independence is not a straight line.