Turning the corner and cresting a hill, Cathy Zall's hybrid car barely hums. She, and her car, could be inconspicuous on a busy weekday in downtown New London. But as executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, it is Zall's job to cast a light on those otherwise shunted to the shadows of society, so she rolls down her window and calls out a cheery greeting to a man crossing the street.
He looks as if he had expected to pass by, unnoticed. He halts, and when he sees Zall, his face erupts into a smile and he straightens up.
Zall has heard he is moving to Florida, and urges him to keep in touch. Before moving along, she asks if he needs anything.
Asking about others' needs is a refrain Zall will repeat as she moves through a busy day at St. James Episcopal Church, which is where the homeless shelter has 50 beds. Days after Hurricane Sandy, it is doubling as a daytime hospitality center usually open only at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation. The Homeless Hospitality Center runs both facilities.
"We call people here our guests – that is our philosophy," said Zall, who has served as the executive director since 2007. Zall, 59, also finds time to step in as a part-time pastor of the First Congregational Church in New London. For her, ministering to the homeless is an extension of her faith as a Christian.
"It's not just an economic or policy problem," said Zall of homelessness. "It's a spiritual problem – what concern do we have for other people?"
That's not to say that Zall is a pure idealist – she is tempered with pragmatism, and tackles homelessness with a combination of Christian compassion as well as administrative efficiency honed from her years in social service.
She once served as deputy commissioner of New York City's Office of Employment Services and brings an unusual business background to social services, holding an MBA in accounting from New York University. Later in life, she obtained her Master of Divinity degree from Yale, and is the mother of two adult children, Emily and David Zall.
Zall served as an associate minister for the First Congregational Church in Old Lyme – but was drawn back to grassroots social services through her involvement in St. Francis House, an Intentional Christian Community formed by the late Father Emmett Jarett of New London, whose work with the homeless was the informal inception of the Homeless Hospitality Center.
Spurred by a need for homeless advocacy that became apparent when the social service office in the city was closed, Zall worked with Jarett to never leave anyone out in the cold – a mission that keeps burning today.
"She is always able to keep that level of passion and compassion on what she does," said Mary Lenzini, CEO of the Visiting Nurses Association of Southeastern Connecticut and a member of the board of directors of the hospitality
Keeping people out of the cold may involve carrying them some nights over the threshold, if need be, said Zall. After all, she points out, a person's chances of exiting homelessness decrease if they are abusing substances. So responding to that is the first order of business.
And the goal of the homeless center is to move people back into housing. Figuring out those ways, said Zall, means that each person is approached with an individual plan – addressing the reason behind their situation is key.
Responsible for writing grants, as well as raising funds, Zall is a tireless researcher.
"She's always inquisitive and always looking for solutions to homelessness," said Lenzini, who admires Zall's recognition of the critical need for addressing health care issues in the homeless.
Perhaps Zall's greatest accomplishment of late is to find a place for both the shelter and the Hospitality Center — a campus of sorts that they will create on property purchased from a Polish church. She found the needed space – a feat in New London — and enlisted the pro bono help of a lawyer, contractor and architect. The new HHC will include respite beds for the medically frail.
While most people get back on their feet, Zall does acknowledge the chronically homeless.
Some people who have been "fixtures" on the streets of New London have been helped, said Zall, whose can-do attitude brushes away obstacles, as well as the obvious question of how she can cope with what many see as an intractable and depressing social problem.
"I love it – I tell people, 'don't feel sorry for me.' The people we are serving are so grateful for what we do – it's so tangible, so basic. Every person deserves a safe place to lie down at night. I feel we do a good job, I feel we save lives. What can be better than that?"
Zall, say the people who work with her, is the HHC – the driving force of the organization.
"Aside from being incredibly bright she also has an attitude that nothing is impossible – that everything is possible," said Carolyn Patierno, minister at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London and board president.
For the six years since Zall has been executive director, she has never lost sight of HHC's mission, and has kept it close to her heart, Patierno said.
And as complex an issue as homelessness can be, sitting down and listening to Zall illuminates that the first step is quite simple – and she leads by example.
"Here we talk to people," said Zall. "We say, 'I care about you. I notice you.'"