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Norwich - For three men who have lived for years in tents, in the woods, or in local homeless shelters, Thanksgiving came last week.
On Nov. 21, Rubin Almeida, 66, George Mushero, 42, and Raymond Larkin, 55, moved into an apartment on Fairmount Street, their first in years. They share a three-bedroom unit, thanks to the new effort by the Norwich Community Care Team's "Rapid Re-housing/Shelter Diversion" program, which uses dollars previously spent for a winter homeless shelter to help homeless people move into more permanent housing.
"Rubin came in and gave me a big hug and said, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,'" said Lee Ann Gomes, assistant director at Norwich Human Services, the agency coordinating the Rapid Rehousing program.
Landlord Les King unlocked the door for his new tenants and their caseworker, Tracy Gill from Reliance House, at 2 p.m. last Thursday.
Almeida immediately started exploring, opening doors and checking out the few pieces of furniture - a beat-up green couch and a living room chair. He entered a bedroom with a large window with a stained glass arch at the top and a built-in windowseat. He put his backpack on the seat and said: "This is mine. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful."
Gill briefly was concerned that the three might argue over room selections, but Mushero and Larkin checked out the other rooms and within minutes, all agreed to their choices.
Until that day, Mushero and Larkin were campmates in the nearby woods, while Almeida was living at the New London shelter. He knew his new roommates from their time together in winter shelters and at the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen.
Gill worked for years at the Norwich winter homeless hospitality shelter, run by the Community Care Team, a partnership of numerous social services agencies funded by the city's federal Community Development Block Grant and other small grants.
With the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's call last spring to reduce reliance on shelters, the group received city approval to use its $30,000 block grant to find housing for homeless people. Small grants brought the total to $42,700.
Other grant applications are pending. The state last week approved $250,000 for the New London County Fund to End Homelessness. While 70 percent of that grant is to help families, officials in Norwich and at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center will tap the remainder for individuals. As of Friday, the Community Care Team had a list of 48 names. Thus far, 19 have been diverted into housing instead of shelters. Another 11 were living in shelters, but three of those had been "rapidly re-housed," meaning their shelter stays were short.
Almeida was one of the "rapid re-housing" clients, while Larkin and Mushero were diverted from winter shelters.
By Monday, their apartment looked like a home. A microwave oven and a coffeemaker sat on the kitchen counter. An entertainment center - whose side door refused to stay closed - held a small TV and a DVD player. St. Vincent's provided a couch and love seat.
They didn't have beds yet, but Almeida had moved the old couch into his room to sleep on, and Larkin was using an inflatable chair as a temporary bed.
Larkin also had retrieved his two kittens from his camp, although he wasn't able to catch their feral mother.
With a home and a stove, Larkin offered to cook Thanksgiving dinner for his roommates. He once took a culinary class from the Thames Valley Council for Community Action and has worked in restaurants over the years.
"I'm a good cook," he said.
Mushero plans to spend Thanksgiving at his son's mother's home in Norwich, but Almeida gladly accepted Larkin's offer.
Almeida, a Cuban refugee who speaks little English, arrived in New York in 1986. He has been living in Norwich for the past five years. He worked as a dishwasher in New York but lately has had health problems. City social workers are trying to get his paperwork from U.S. immigration officials so he can receive Social Security, Gomes said. For now, he receives a small monthly general assistance check from the state.
Almeida spent last winter at the Norwich winter hospitality center. He moved to the regional New London shelter when the Norwich shelter closed in April.
Larkin has been living in the woods for 15 years, except for a "very short time" in housing. He was kicked out of the Norwich winter shelter years ago for heavy drinking, but said he has been sober four years. He works in home improvement and takes whatever jobs he can find.
"I feel ecstatic about this!" Larkin said of his new apartment.
Mushero has been camping with Larkin on and off for the past three or four years, at times staying with friends. He works at the Harp & Dragon Irish Pub on Main Street as a dishwasher.
"It feels good to have your own place," he said.
With limited funding, the Community Care Team can spend up to $1,000 per client. Sometimes, solutions are creative, like the $450.90 spent for one-way Greyhound bus tickets for a couple to move to Idaho to live with an ailing mother - with the mother's approval, Gomes said.
Temporary housing might include rooms run by Reliance House, local sober houses or Safe Futures, formerly the Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut, in New London. Permanent housing could be at Patricia's Place, a six-bedroom house for formerly homeless women, run by Bethsaida Inc., or Veterans Affairs supportive housing or local apartments.
When King told Gill, the Reliance House case worker, that he had a three-bedroom unit available, she jumped at it.
The Community Care Team will use the block grant to pay the $1,700 first month's rent and security deposit. Thereafter, the three men will split the rent, paying $284 per month each plus utilities. Reliance House offers a savings program that calls for them to deposit $100 per week for housing expenses.
King said he hesitated at first about participating in the Rapid Re-housing program, but not because of the financial risk. King is chairman of the city's Community Development Advisory Committee, which initially approved the program's block grant request. But he felt supporting the program was more important than any perception of a conflict of interest.
Besides, King said, he has been working with local social services agencies for years to help provide affordable housing for people in need. He said if there are responsible agencies and caseworkers involved, he's willing to help.
"Caseworkers make a big difference," King said. "Without the caseworkers, this program wouldn't work."