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New London - During the coldest months of the year, no one is turned away from the homeless shelter at St. James Episcopal Church, even those who are banned during warmer weather.
Some, whose behavior is disruptive to others, are allowed to stay in what is referred to as the "no freeze" room, a roughly 15-by-15-foot storage area. They are given a mat, a pillow and a blanket.
"It's like a warming center, a room to get out of the cold," said Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, which runs the overnight shelter as well as a day shelter on Jay Street. "In the winter we have a commitment to leave no one outside. Whatever the demand is, we meet that demand.''
But some homeless people refer to it as the "freeze room'' and say those who complain are relegated to sleep there on the floor, kept apart from the 60 or so others who sleep on cots.
"If you complain, they tell you to leave,'' said William Thomas, who joined three other homeless men Thursday morning at Union Station to talk about how they have been treated by the shelter staff. All four said they are not allowed in the main shelter.
The men said it's called the "freeze room" because there is no heat. Zall disputed this, saying that the room is heated.
Thomas, originally from Bloomfield, said he has been in the New London area for about a year since completing an addiction program at Stonington Institute. He stayed for a while at the Covenant Shelter on Jay Street but said he left after he and the staff agreed he didn't belong there. He then went to the shelter at St. James.
"At first it was OK,'' Thomas said. "Until I started opening my mouth and speaking out. Then I got 30 days.''
Michael, who declined to give his last name, said he was relegated to the "freeze room'' Wednesday night after being banned from the shelter for 90 days. He was kicked out of that room too, he said, for talking to one of three females who were also there sleeping on the opposite side of a divider.
Michael went to the police station, where he was allowed to sit on the floor in the lobby. He nodded off for several hours but then was told he had to move. He spent the rest of the night huddled under some steps near the train station.
"They're going to say it was because we were drinking and causing a ruckus,'' he said, adding that he was put in the room because he refused an apartment that shelter officials found for him.
"I'll let you know straight up how I feel,'' Michael said, admitting that he can be loud and abrupt. "But they talk to you like you're a nobody."
Zall, while not speaking specifically about the four men, said people who stay in the shelter have to respect the rules. "Behaviors have consequences," she said. "Some people look at it as a punishment. But the rest of the year, they would be banned altogether.''
Those with a history of fighting, threatening staff or sneaking in alcohol or drugs, and those who have money coming in but are unwilling to allow the shelter to save part of their income for future rents on apartments, are normally not allowed in the shelter at all, Zall said. But when it's cold, everyone comes inside, even if it's into the "no freeze" room, where one staff member is assigned to monitor the room.
"That's how tough it is,'' Zall said, noting that on Wednesday there were eight people in the room.
Thomas, who has a case manager with Sound Community Services and needs daily medication, said his goal is to find permanent housing. The shelter people did find him an apartment, he said, but it was in a known drug area and he refused it. "You can't put someone who's trying to stay off drugs in the middle of drugs,'' he said.
Michael said he, too, was offered an apartment and refused it because it was too small.
John, who also declined to give his last name, said he also refused permanent housing. He also said he's had enough; he demanded the money the shelter was saving for him for housing and bought a train ticket to California. He's leaving Tuesday.
Thomas said there are some staff members who belittle the homeless. He fears there will be a backlash for speaking out, but he said he can no longer stay quiet.
"You know, I'm homeless, I'm stressing. I'm trying to put my life back together and they aren't helping,'' he said. "I don't want the shelter to close. But some of the staff is making it bad. ... They degrade you.''
Zall responded that the shelter cannot tolerate screaming, pushing or fighting. "I feel we have remarkable people," she said. "I can't say they don't once in a while lose their temper, but we try to be very calm and very respectful. This is very, very hard work and we do our best to work with people."
The staff, which includes some who are paid and some volunteers, also tries to help people in a variety of ways, including finding detox programs, counseling and medical aid. But some people refuse the help.
"And people are totally free to do that,'' Zall said. "We live in free society."