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New London — Johnathon Willsey sat back in his chair, having just finished a plate of tuna casserole.
He sat with two friends, Tori Merrill, 17, and Joshua Hayslip, 25, all part of a growing clientele of young adults at the New London Community Meal Center, known to most as the Soup Kitchen.
Faced with homelessness, unemployment and the rigors of a down economy, they turn to the free, twice-a-day meals on Montauk Avenue — especially near the end of each month when various financial and state aid programs run dry.
"I'm extremely grateful that this place exists," said Willsey, 22. "Because otherwise I wouldn't be able to eat a lot. Food stamps only get you so far when that's all you have to live off of."
Ellen Bassuk, founder and president of the National Center on Family Homelessness, said young adults who are homeless have often aged out of the foster care system or left destructive home environments.
"That youth population, by and large, has less services and is relatively neglected," said Bassuk, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Tall, thin and that day wearing tiny baby duck earrings in each earlobe, Willsey was born in the area but moved to live with his father in Oklahoma and Idaho for much of his youth. After he moved out on his own, he said, he had a falling out with his roommates. His mother paid for a plane ticket, and he came back to New London.
Eventually, Willsey said, his mother was evicted from her apartment, leaving him without a place to stay. He stayed at the Homeless Hospitality Center at St. James Episcopal Church for a few months, more recently sleeping on a friend's couch.
For the better part of two years he has worked many temporary jobs, some of them through Labor Ready, a temporary employment agency. He attended a job fair at the Crystal Mall, not finding much there.
Willsey said he has his General Equivalency Degree and would like to attend Three Rivers Community College. But it's difficult finding steady income, he said.
"There are a lot of people that are getting in tough situations. It's getting to the point where their families can't take care of them," Willsey said. "Or whatever choices they've made down the road have put them in this situation. It's not easy to deal with or get out of."
Looking for work
Joshua Hayslip said he has held various jobs in the past several years, including at Sheffield Pharmaceuticals and as a bathroom attendant at the MGM Grand Casino. He quit the first job and was fired from the second for punching a wall in frustration.
Wearing a hat with the Ford Mustang logo and a silver Chevy belt buckle, Hayslip has an affinity for cars and fixing things. Computers, mostly. Recently, he has spent his free time fixing the chain, tires and fender on an old Schwinn bicycle he found at a dump.
He returns to his family's home in New London only to pick up his mail.
He called his high school diploma, which he said he earned through New London Adult and Continuing Education, "just a piece of paper" and says he would work anywhere at this point.
"Any of the fast-food places on Colman Street. I have applications in there," Hayslip said. "I've tried at the mall. I can't even remember (them all)."
He is grateful for the soup kitchen. He questioned if he would be alive without it.
A lot of family stress
Tori Merrill has been coming to the soup kitchen for about two years.
Dark-haired and soft-spoken, the 17-year-old lives with her mother. Soon other members of her family will come to live with them. Her uncle just underwent back surgery. There's been a lot of stress in her family lately, Merrill said.
Her father lives in Norwich and is not well, she said, but he has been supportive of her. She said her family has used food stamps for as long as she can remember.
Merrill has not found a job but says she is working toward her diploma in night school at New London Adult and Continuing Education. She writes poetry and envisions working in the arts or child care one day.
"I'm hoping to be able to get a job for now so I can partially help out my mom and save up to get my own place," Merrill said. "I'd like to be on my own and be able to stand on my own two feet."
Some have given up
More than 300 volunteers work at the soup kitchen each month. Sometimes they are shocked by what they see.
"You'd be surprised by the number of people that come through here to volunteer and say, 'I really didn't realize it was this bad,'" said Milton Cook, the president of the board of directors.
Richard, who declined to give his last name, has been a regular since he was laid off two years ago. He described the people he meets there: Some are educated. Others don't know how to handle their money and struggle with alcohol and drug problems.
Richard said he is a former nuclear engineer who used to work at Electric Boat and Pratt & Whitney, among other places. He went through a difficult divorce and said he's been laid off eight times.
Richard said the outlook is bleak for many at the soup kitchen. "Most of them have given up looking for a job. Most of them gave up a long time ago," he said. "They've accepted they're going to be unemployed for the rest of their lives."
But the younger ones — Willsey, Hayslip and Merrill — have plans.
As they ate dinner together at the soup kitchen, Merrill was asked where she envisions herself in a year. She plans to be done with school and working.
Hayslip said he has considered attending Three Rivers, but if he doesn't go to school, he will continue looking for work.
In the meantime, Willsey and Hayslip said they would soon be without a place to stay again. They have recently stayed with Hayslip's cousin, but she will soon lose her apartment.
They both said they would consider living in a tent outdoors. Willsey said he has no intention of returning to the Homeless Hospitality Center.
"No, no, no. I'll find something to do," he said. "By winter, I'll be in school."
He moved on to the dinner line at the soup kitchen.
The crowded room, packed with more than 100 people, said grace. Patrons moved forward for helpings of spaghetti, tossed salad and green beans.
Willsey then sat down in the back of the room, sharing another meal with Hayslip and Merrill.