Homelessness in Greater Hartford: Meet Sal Pinna | Connecticut Public Radio

Homelessness in Greater Hartford: Meet Sal Pinna

Feb 20, 2015

"When people become housed and stabilized in housing and integrated into communities, it strengthens the whole community."
Matt Morgan

Salvatore Pinna, 52, grew up on Long Island and came to Connecticut 20 years ago. In official parlance, Pinna is chronically homeless, which is how the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development describes someone who has been homeless for a year or more, or who has had at least four incidences of homelessness in three years, and has a disability. 

Pinna more than fits the description. He has effectively been homeless since he came to Connecticut in the '90s. Some of that time he spent living on the streets and sleeping under bridges. 

Pinna got kicked out of his stepdad's house in 1995, and made his way to Connecticut via Albany and Syracuse. "I got shipped to Bristol, Connecticut where I was in a drug and treatment facility, but I was not there for drugs and alcohol," Pinna said. "I was there for my anger. I migrated to Hartford and I've been here ever since." 

Pinna has diabetes, which he medicates, and he has bipolar disorder, which he doesn't because he says the drugs he was given years ago made him groggy. 

I met Sal Pinna a few years ago at a class at Charter Oak Cultural Center for Creative Learning. He sat up front with a scowl on his face. He said he didn’t want to be there, but he kept coming back and he once wrote an essay that broke my heart. Pinna wrote about the most important people in his life and each paragraph ended with “But I don’t see him no more.”

These days, Pinna craves the stability a home of his own would provide. "I would like to be in an apartment somewhere, just to have my own space, do what I want, come and go as I please," he said. 

With his own place, Pinna can maybe have a girlfriend over, and play his Dean Martin music as loud as he wants. 

A sleeping bag was left inside an abandoned building in Hartford.
Credit Susan Campbell

Connecticut is on the cusp of reaching some significant goals in reducing chronic homelessness, and homelessness among veterans.

Next month, several parts of the state, including the Greater Hartford area, will participate in a 100-day challenge during which activists, advocates, service providers and others will – in 100 days -- build a new crisis response system, and house as many people like Pinna as possible.

Last year, New Haven participated in a similar challenge, and that town decreased their chronically homeless population by more than 75 percent. 

Matt Morgan, Executive Director of Journey Home in Hartford, said they are trying to think outside the box. "We are working now to try to renovate the whole system of how people access emergency shelter, transitional housing, rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing programs, which are all the programs that prioritize the homeless population," he said.

This means having a willingness to take risks, to throw a Hail Mary pass such as the 100-day challenge. The challenge is the brainchild of Nadim Matta, president of Rapid Results Institute. The idea is people with skin in the game choose their goal and then move heaven and earth to reach it. The 100-day challenge has worked for building rice production in Madagascar, and improving factory worker safety in Sao Paulo. Why not homelessness in America?

"The 100 days, paradoxically, is liberating," said Matta. "Sometimes the unthinkable happens and people emerge from that feeling really good about doing something unimaginable."

The idea is to acknowledge that the current system that is supposed to serve people who are homeless has happened over the years, and isn’t always the most effective or efficient way to get people housed. "You can’t quite throw out the rules. You can’t do anything that’s against the law, of course," said Matta. "What we have found is there’s a lot more room for maneuvering in the current rules than people really realize."

A tent set up inside an abandoned building in Hartford.
Credit Susan Campbell

Despite the high expectations of the 100-day challenge, everyone acknowledges that this is a complicated population to reach. Journey Home's Matt Morgan said "the biggest challenge would be for those who have been rejected so many times in their lives, that they don't have any trust in any of the services or programs or agencies that are trying to help and will refuse to be housed, refuse what can be offered, refuse to accept community help."

Of course, there are other barriers. One tool used as a kind of triage to measure the needs of people who are homeless is called the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization and Decision Assistance Tool , or VI-SPDAT, for short. The tool helps determine what resources people need to get and stay housed. People are scored based on those needs. Sal Pinna’s VI-SPDAT score is a two, which means by VI-SPDAT’s standards, he should be capable of living on his own in public or transitional housing. The score for the most vulnerable population is 20. 

Pinna’s score does not reflect the fact that he has diagnoses both physical and mental. In order to stay housed, he’s going to need permanent supportive housing, or housing with services such as case management, and job training. That sounds expensive, but even providing all the supportive services Pinna needs for the rest of his life is cheaper than keeping him on the streets.  

Tent area found along the Connecticut River.
Credit Susan Campbell

For example, last year the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness released a study that said every person who is chronically homeless costs roughly $31,000. That’s $31,000 for the salaries of police officer who move them out of public parks, time spent in jail, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations.

If someone who is chronically homeless cuts his hand, he’s not going to a walk-in. He’s going to wait until his hand blows up like a poisoned puppy, and he drops on the street and someone calls for the ambulance. That ambulance costs money, as does a trip to the emergency room.

The rest of us pay for that via taxes and insurance premiums. But getting someone like Pinna into permanent supportive housing with a case manager costs roughly $10,000 a year. That’s $21,000 in savings. And the benefits go beyond the person being housed. 

"Homelessness is a huge drain on community resources and it also can cause harm to communities, especially when homelessness is concentrated in specific neighborhoods," Matt Morgan said. "When people become housed and stabilized in housing and integrated into communities, it strengthens the whole community." 

But first, the crisis response system needs a redesign, and things like the VI-SPDAT, which advocates say scores people lower than they should be, need re-examining. As an indication of how detailed the barriers are, one hurdle to getting people housed is getting those people proper identification. In New Haven, planners figured out a way to get a special line dedicated at an area DMV, so that people who are homeless and had no identification could be helped quickly.

All these challenges, and more, face a dedicated core group of people who are intent on cutting the numbers down to zero.  

"This 100-day campaign, we're not going to get every single person housed," Morgan said. "By changing the system in a way that makes it easy for people to access these housing resources and targeting the systems and programs to meet the people where they are and to get them housed according to their level of need instead of according to their ability to jump through hoops and hurdles."

But Morgan is optimistic, in part because Connecticut is so close. Take, for instance, veterans who are homeless. In 2012, 1,000 veterans were homeless in Connecticut. Last January, 400 were counted, according to the CT Heroes Project. That’s a significant drop.

"If any state in this entire country can do it, we can do it in Connecticut," said Morgan. "We are a small state and that is an advantage in this work because our state government is behind this. As a society, we can do better. In this country, the number one country in the world when it comes to wealth, we can achieve this."

And if this gets a house for Sal, all the better.

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 JesusFor the next few months, Campbell and WNPR will follow the progress of Sal Pinna and the 100-day challenge.