And so, I tried another avenue -- my cousin's minister, who, my mother intimated, could incline my cousin's ear a bit in my direction. She was sympathetic, she gave me Earl Grey tea and a cookie, and let me stroke Oliver, a fine cat associated with the church. No, she wasn't about to talk to my cousin. My cousin was too old, and had many health and emotional problems -- we're talking about a lady who drives, takes care of a ten-room house, has a social calendar as lively as Pat Buckley's, often entertains her college-aged grandchildren AND holds down a job. However, the Reverend had read that I was once involved with Keefe Center, the Hamden city welfare department, whose programs are excellent, and have simply wonderful social workers. She even seemed to hold me at fault that I wasn't still involved with them, fifteen years, and several changes of address, later. Why, just the other day, they'd put up some people she'd referred in a motel, right near there. Imagine that!
In short, the usual song and dance from people who "are concerned", but don't want to do anything about it. Within a day or so, I'd talked to Mary, of Keefe Center. She told me everything but what I wanted to know, and asked me, somewhat defensively, why I wasn't talking to my caseworker at Columbus House, since their top-notch staff would most certainly done something for me -- any problems I might have were entirely my fault. I replied that they didn't have time for me, there were just too many people, and that they were beginning to discourage people from coming, since they were working at double capacity. She dismissed this as nonsense, and asked for the name of my worker. I couldn't give it, since, in the three years I'd been there, I'd only been seen once, only to be told that I really didn't qualify for much, since I had no children, wasn't an identified minority group, wasn't taking psychiatric drugs or wanted to be weaned off recreational ones, wasn't an ex-con, discharged from any armed services, diabetic, or had been on any previous welfare programs. Nameless caseworker said she'd get back to me, and so, here I am. Mary didn't believe me, and gave me what I wanted to know: there weren't any people put up in the Carriage House Motel. Instead, she said, I should do exactly what my worker at Columbus House tells me to do, since their program is excellent....I hung up.
The legend of Columbus House is that it's the homeless person's paradise: anyone who goes through their door is immediately assigned a wonderful case worker whose only concern is to serve the client's every need, from hand-holding during a difficult night, to the most complex jobs of mentoring. In between, there are comfortable beds, healthy, delicious food, and an environment that is inviting, stress-free, and above all, safe. Those who haven't been there, and aren't in the social-service field embellish the picture with comfortable lounges where you can find books to read, TV to watch, and, during the day, there are classes towards job readiness, group therapy meetings, recovery groups, arts and crafts, and any number of programs geared towards keeping the homeless off the streets and well-occupied in various activities. In any case, a safe, lasting, affordable home is only a few days away -- within a day, the client is given a list of available low-cost subsidized apartments, and within a week is whisked away to a new life, bound, if not to the working middle class, at least towards a retirement with dignity in a rest home, a mental hospital, or some such facility.
(Pardon me while I wring my hands together, and give out a shrill, forced-sounding laugh -- it's my way of keeping from shrieking and beating my head on the wall.)
Sadly, this place is inhabited by ingrates, freeloaders, and lowlifes whose lack of ambition dooms any kind of reform to failure -- in other words, anyone who isn't instantly helped by this magical place, these wonder-workers, have only themselves to blame, a comfortable assumption that keeps middle-class, housed, people snug in their beds, free from having to worry about the messy lives of the idlers sleeping on the New Haven Green. Just keep them out of our back yard, our homes and our lives -- that is, until you're one of them.
The usual Columbus House resident has been on the streets for an average of seven years. Nominally, one can only use Emergency services (that is night-to-night) for ninety days before going elsewhere. This is to cut down on overcrowding -- it's been found that people simply don't leave. It is to be hoped that this will force people to find other places to stay -- you're constantly asked if you have friends, family, a clergyman, who will either take you in or find you, if not an apartment, a garage, a basement, a sofa... After a month, you can go back again.
There are two main areas: the cafeteria, and the dorms. Somewhat as an afterthought, there is, at least on the first floor, a TV lounge and a "reading room", which doubles as a dorm, but is otherwise off-limits. The whole thing is run by the Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, on the theory that homelessness is actually a kind of disease, that drugs (of an approved nature) and faith healing can cure. Other than some picnic tables used during smoke breaks, there isn't any real "activity" or "class" rooms around. If you qualify (under the House's weird rules) you can stay in the cafeteria all day, have lunch, and even hear Mass (from my own Christ Church). Now and then they'll hold an AA meeting and various Residents' meeting. Meals are uniformly high in empty calories, and a lot of the people there are fat. You can't store anything, and food can't be taken in from outside. Neither are the clients about to turn their lives around, despite cheerleading to do so -- people distrust folks from the shelters, many are old, and almost no one has a good set of teeth -- however much you'd like to think, teaching these folks typing isn't going to make them employable.
However, this is all coming from a homeless woman...more later...