Thursday, August 7, 2008
In search of a roof, 4 walls and a job: Waterbury agencies work to reverse a numbing cycle
WATERBURY – Tina Henderson sleeps in a tent, but she isn't on a camping trip. Less than a mile from the Waterbury Green, she and five other people live in what those who work in homeless outreach call Tent City.
She is among what some say are as many as 500 homeless people in the city, a number well above the official count.
Henderson is missing a few teeth, but that doesn't stop her from smiling when she shows off pictures of her family or when joking about the notions people have of her.
"I always hear I don't look like I live in a tent. Well what is someone who lives in a tent supposed to look like?" she asked. "We're all people."
The Bush administration said last week the number of chronically homeless people in the U.S. has dropped an average of 15 percent per year from 2005 to 2007. The progress was attributed to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's commitment to moving homeless off the streets. HUD has spent about $10 billion since 2001 to support local housing and service programs.
Based on official counts released Wednesday, Waterbury's homeless population also has declined. From 2005 to 2006, the number of homeless in the city fell from 282 to 135, a 52 percent decrease. In 2007, the number rose to 184 and on Jan. 30 this year there were 178 homeless people counted.
But Brian Gibbons, supervisor of the homeless outreach team for the Greater Waterbury Mental Health Authority, says the number of homeless is actually much higher.
Gibbons said that because the count is taken on one cold winter night "there's a whole other group who will crash on a couch on the night of the count. If they're in a home they don't get counted and no one really knows how many there are."
He and others who work in outreach believe the number is more like 400 or 500. Gibbons, who has been working with the homeless in Waterbury for about 15 years, said he has seen people who were homeless as children, now homeless with their children, and said the problem has only grown worse.
Rick Povilaitis, a clinical social worker and a member of the homeless outreach team, agrees.
"As far as I'm concerned, the numbers we're seeing out in the woods are increasing," Povilaitis said.
At Tent City, Gibbons said whenever one person gets into an apartment, there is always someone new who moves into the woods. He has been trying to break the cycle, but said for about three years this specific spot in the woods — just past a railroad bridge that crosses Jackson Street near The Home Depot on Bank Street — has had people living in tents, sometimes as many as 13 people at a time.
Gibbons said the problem in Waterbury isn't that the city or state isn't doing enough, but that there isn't enough federal aid from HUD to help everyone who needs it. The homeless outreach team's goal is to locate the homeless, get them into treatment programs and out of the woods.
To get the homeless into apartments, Gibbons relies on Section 8 rental vouchers from the Waterbury Housing Authority, which gets them from HUD. The program allows those who qualify to pay 30 percent of their income to a landlord. The balance on the fair market rent is then paid to the landlord by HUD. The ultimate goal is to get their clients out of Section 8, paying taxes and moving on with their lives.
Gibbons said from July 1, 2007, to June 30, 2008, the Waterbury Housing Authority gave out 250 Section 8 vouchers. It subsidizes 3,000 residents through Section 8 and similar programs.
Belinda Arce-Lopez of the Waterbury Housing Authority said 900 names were chosen from a lottery in January 2007 for a Section 8 waiting list, and there are still 250 names on the list. She said the vouchers are recycled if someone moves out or their lease is terminated.
"The program is running at full capacity," Arce-Lopez said.
To qualify for Section 8, a person must have income, but Gibbons said major issues in finding jobs for the homeless include criminal history, drug addiction and mental illness. Another difficulty is finding landlords willing to take at-risk tenants.
"We need friendly landlords, people willing to take a chance," Gibbons said. "This is a good city. You can't give up on this clientele and getting to know them."
Henderson, 36, is a life-long Waterbury resident. She said finding a job and being "behind four walls with plumbing" are her only concerns right now. In the past she was a cashier and held jobs through temporary agencies, but now Henderson says her prospects are limited.
"It's hard getting a job when you're living under a bridge," Henderson said. "A lot of people don't want to hire you if you look a little unpresentable."
Henderson's boyfriend of 13 years, who lives with her in Tent City, recently found a job and she hopes his income will help them get out of the woods and that she can find work before winter.
Henderson attended Hopeville School and West Side Middle School. She got pregnant and dropped out of high school. She has since earned a GED through a class at New Opportunities Inc.
Her most recent living arrangement was at a friend's house whose children she watched in exchange for a place to live.
After three months, when her friend's boyfriend got upset with her living there, Henderson was kicked out without notice. She slept in an abandoned building that night — in mid-January.
"It was so cold you just pray you wake up in the morning," she said.
Since then, Henderson stayed in the St. Vincent DePaul shelter on Benedict Street for about two months and has been living in her tent for four months. Henderson's sister and two children live in Waterbury. Her daughter recently got married and will be working as a medical office transcriptionist. Her son, 14, lives with his father.
"I will not impose on my family; they have it hard, too. I couldn't and wouldn't put it on them," Henderson said. "I take care of me."
Fred Blanchard was able to get out of Tent City.
Blanchard, 53, grew up in Waterbury and attended Tinker Elementary School as his only schooling. Two years ago, disagreements in his household forced him onto the street.
He had been placed in an apartment for a short while, but being the kind of man who has a hard time saying no, others began staying in his apartment until it became such a problem that Blanchard was evicted.
Through Brass City Harvest, a program run by Povilaitis to give the homeless a place to work and a means to pay for their portion of Section 8, Blanchard now has income. Blanchard works every day watering and weeding the farmer's market garden on Hillside Avenue, and was able to move into a two-room apartment two weeks ago.
The apartment is kept immaculately clean, and Povilaitis said Blanchard takes pride in scrubbing the floors every day.
"Fred is very responsible," Povilaitis said. "He's a hard worker."
Originally appeared 8/7/2008 on pages 1A and 4A in the Republican-American©. Article and Photos by Kristen Domonell.