Homeless program coordinator walked in the shoes of those she now helps

Donie Jarmon, center, the program coordinator for Bethsaida Community's Homeless Women Deserve Treatment program, talks to people at St. Vincent de Paul Place in Norwich last month. Jarmon regularly visits St. Vincent de Paul Place, a community meal center and food pantry for the homeless and those on limited income.
Donie Jarmon, center, the program coordinator for Bethsaida Community's Homeless Women Deserve Treatment program, talks to people at St. Vincent de Paul Place in Norwich last month. Jarmon regularly visits St. Vincent de Paul Place, a community meal center and food pantry for the homeless and those on limited income. Abigail Pheiffer/The Day Buy Photo

Norwich - "This is my office," said Donie Jarmon, standing in the parking lot of the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen. "I'd take this any day over being at a desk. I turned down two state jobs. To me, it's not about the money. It's about helping people."

Jarmon, 47, is a program coordinator at Bethsaida Community Inc.'s new Homeless Women Deserve Treatment program. Jarmon and fellow case manager Ben Green often hang out in downtown Norwich, looking for familiar and new faces.

Sometimes, Jarmon, who has short hair, a brisk walk and an air of street confidence, pulls on hiking boots and walks along the railroad tracks downtown and in Taftville, checking known homeless camps. One or two women live in the camps, she said. She walks along Boswell Avenue and Franklin Street. Sometimes she finds a woman who knows of another who needs help.

On this day, the soup kitchen and adjacent bus stop were busy. Jarmon waved to a few guys seated on a concrete retaining wall.

"What's happening?" she yelled. "You staying out of trouble?"

"Oh yeah," one answered.

A car stopped and a woman leaned over to open the passenger- side window. It's Tracy, a woman who works with homeless people in downtown Norwich.

"I'll need to talk to you about someone," Tracy told Jarmon.

It was the pipeline in action.

Kristin DeShong was hanging outside St. Vincent's waiting for her laundry when Jarmon caught her eye. The two had already met and had started talking a few times a week.

Jarmon pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket. She had written down two classified ads for apartments for DeShong and her fiance, who are staying in a cramped boarding room.

Minutes later, DeShong returned from a short walk down the street and told Jarmon that neither apartment would work. The units were too big and expensive. Jarmon said she would keep checking the ads.

"Hey, Donie!" said a woman heading into the soup kitchen. "I got out Friday. I'm living in a sober house in Willimantic. I came down to see Jillian."

"Tell her to give you one of my cards," Jarmon said.

Jillian Corbin, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Place, refers many clients to Bethsaida's new program for homeless women. On this day, Corbin pointed out the window to an unfamiliar woman in the parking lot. "She's somewhat questionable," Corbin said.

Jarmon said she would try to meet the woman casually to learn about her situation.

Her 'ministry'

Jarmon calls Bethsaida's program "my ministry in life." She worked for several years as the homeless outreach worker for Reliance House, which serves people with mental illness. But her experience goes back much further.

Jarmon is a 19-year recovering alcoholic. She was homeless at one point and lived in the TVCCA shelter in Norwich with her two young children.

She got her GED diploma, took training classes and became a certified nurse's assistant until a back injury forced her to find a new career. She worked for the Norwich Free Academy special education program and then at Stonington Institute and the Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Jarmon's not shy about lecturing a client against turning back to drugs or alcohol because of a bad day. She recalled one recent conversation she had with DeShong about the young woman's heroin relapse.

"That was just a piss-poor excuse," Jarmon told her. "It's about choices. It was your choice to use.

"I've been sober for 19 years," she said. "So many things have happened to me in those years. How many package stores do you think I've driven past every day? And I didn't stop."

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