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'This isn’t just a shelter': Center helps those with nowhere else to turn

New London — It’s a typical week night in December at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center on State Pier Road and a crowd of people has gathered outside, waiting to be checked in. The sun has set and the temperature outside is dropping into the lower 30s.

It’s a hodgepodge group of women and men from varied backgrounds, many with mental health or medical issues, a few who finished recent prison stints and a handful with obvious signs of substance abuse issues.

Some are working at low-paying jobs and waiting for a break on a cheap apartment. At least one recently was evicted from his apartment after losing his job and falling behind on rent. He sleeps in his car on warmer nights.

Shelter volunteers Linda Pagan and John Umland offer greetings and mark names off on a registration list as people come through the door into the warm but somewhat cramped confines of the shelter’s first floor.

Shelter supervisor Celida Baez and manager Kate Griffith help manage the crowd coming through the door, catching up on progress some are making looking for work or a home. They take turns checking bags for weapons, drugs and alcohol. A wand is waved over each to check for metal items. Prescription drugs are removed to a locked cabinet.

The shelter is the hub for homeless individuals in New London County and staff members here do their best not to turn people away. It can be overwhelming at times but the alternative is to send a person onto the streets where they are at risk of dying, especially on a cold winter night, Executive Director Cathy Zall said.

“When it gets cold, there are not so many places where people can go to get warm and not be told to move along. Our commitment is to not leave people outside,” Zall said. “We don’t say, ‘Sorry, we won’t take you.’”

The shelter was founded in 2006 with guidance from the late Rev. Emmett Jarrett after a homeless man was found dead in the woods a week after the city’s winter shelter closed. Zall, a pastor at the First Congregational Church, has been the executive director since 2007.

Visitors may get a cot, a mat on the floor of the adjacent administrative building or a chair if it’s a busy night. Numbers have been increasing of late.

A woman bundled in a winter jacket with her hood up plops down into a wooden chair and closes her eyes. She appears to be oblivious to the growing activity around her. It’s getting loud as the 40-bed shelter fills up. Conversations strike up. Some are complaining of hunger. One man wants to know who stole his belongings the night before.

There's also laughter and joking and an uplifting of spirits when volunteers from St. David's Episcopal Church in Ledyard arrive and set up a table, offering fruit and Christmas cookies and cider. Volunteers from community organizations come in just about every night with similar offerings.

The scene is something like you might expect at a gathering of a large, dysfunctional family.

Zall has heard the criticisms about the shelter: that it’s a magnet for people from outside the city looking for a handout and a draw on city resources. But she said the priority leans toward people from the region. Best attempts are made to return people who are not from the area, sometimes released from an area prison, back to where they have a support system. Occasionally, it’s as simple as offering a bus ticket.

The center owns and manages five rental properties in the city, one for veterans and the other four for guests who are able to pay rent to the center and support themselves.

Just under 50 people arrived at the shelter during a two-hour period on this particular evening and volunteers and staff are managing the scene well, listening to concerns or offering warning about behavior where they are needed.

There will be upward of 500 people that enter through the doors of the shelter over the next year. They’ll find a place to sleep, a warm shower and access to food. They also will find empathy and compassion from the host of volunteers and employees pushing them toward a goal of permanent housing.

The New London Homeless Hospitality Center accommodates about 10 percent of the state’s homeless population and has gotten pretty efficient about moving people off the streets and into places of their own, Zall said.

Data collected by the state’s Coordinated Access Networks proves her point. There were nearly 5,000 people who entered a shelter in the state last year, staying on average 77 days. About 30 percent of those individuals found permanent housing. New London’s length of stay averaged 51 days in the last year, just 38 days in the third quarter of 2018. More than 40 percent moved on to permanent homes.

Zall said the shelter’s success in getting people into homes is in part due to help from community partners and the increase in services offered through the years, exemplified by the $500,000 renovation project now underway at the shelter. Part of the project includes renovation of the 10-bed respite area to address the needs of sick people or individuals with disabilities. It is expected to help curtail ambulance calls and shorten hospital visits.

The facility's Help Center also is expanding to better accommodate one-on-one work with people looking for jobs, seeking financial aid to get into an apartment, trying to obtain important documents such as a birth certificate or in need of an address to accept mail.

On one recent night, Chris Clark arrived with his girlfriend to spend the night at the shelter. Clark is up front about his past misdeeds and said he’s spent seven years in and out of prison. He's stayed at halfway houses and spent time sleeping on the ground in makeshift campsites. His most recent release from prison was in January and he said volunteers have steered him on the right course. He has nowhere else to stay at the moment but said he zeroed in on an apartment and was hoping for a boost from a donation of the first month’s rent.

He said he was moved by a recent sermon at Zall’s church and thanked her for the guidance.

“This place helps people. This isn’t just a shelter,” Clark said.

Zall estimates 20 percent of the people who stay at the shelter have jobs and are making enough money to find a modest place to live but perhaps don’t have the means to come up with a security deposit and first month’s rent. More than 50 percent of the people are out within 10 to 15 days, she said.

The shelter cannot help everyone and it’s not always as calm as it is on this night. It can get crowded. There are squabbles, arguments and fights on occasion. Griffith said police were called several nights earlier for a man becoming too violent to handle. Police came and, to the relief of staff, helped to de-escalate the situation, approached him in a nonthreatening manner and were able to get him to leave for an evaluation at the hospital. It could have ended differently but Griffith said police are better trained these days to handle such situations.

And while staff does its best to bring in everyone, one woman recently filed a complaint with the state against the shelter for denying her access with her service dog. Zall said the shelter put her up at a hotel for a time but doesn’t have the facilities to accommodate animals. It's an issue Zall said needs to be addressed.

Griffith said there is a “sense of humanity and kindness” among the people staying at the shelter. The people she has gotten to know are in tough situations and making the best of what they have and helping out around the shelter whenever they can. There are many who need to be reconnected with the mental health system.

Zall said it is through the work of a host of volunteers — people who, she is fond of saying, "get it" — that the place remains open.


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