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Homeless grateful for the kindness of others

This holiday season, Ann Nickerson of Norwich and a man named Bryan are very grateful for the kindness of others and human services offered in eastern Connecticut.

Both know there are many forms of free support for those who are homeless and financially challenged, which include medical services, mental health counseling, COVID-19 testing and clothing, as well as a regional homeless shelter and warming center near them.

They are also familiar with St. Vincent de Paul Place on Cliff Street in Norwich, a place they can go to clean their laundry, take a shower and enjoy a free to-go hot breakfast or lunch.

However, Nickerson and Bryan – who both chose to live in their cars when they were homeless — only accept help on their terms.

Nickerson, who has a bipolar disorder and anxiety issues, chose to be homeless for seven years, because she wasn’t ready to accept help.

She said she felt fortunate to live in a car she named “Lucy.”

“A lot of these poor people do not. They live on the street. They sleep in unsafe places, and that bothers me the most,” said Nickerson, 50.

She said St. Vincent de Paul Place Executive Director Jill Corbin and case manager Julie Way kept trying to get her into housing, but she was adamant about remaining homeless. “I had to prove a point to my family who I don’t talk to except for my dad, that I could survive out there.”

Later, when she was more open to the idea of accepting housing assistance, she said she still didn’t feel right going into an apartment that could house another homeless person.

While waiting to be approved for Social Security Disability benefits, Nickerson received a $200 stated General Assistance check and food stamps monthly. Two years ago she was awarded disability compensation of $1,159 monthly and received $7,000 in retroactive disability compensation, which enabled her to buy a more mechanically sound vehicle.

“Each day God kept me safe out there, but I was nonstop sick all the time with bronchitis every couple of months. I just couldn’t be sick anymore, especially with COVID. I was petrified. I have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease),” said Nickerson, who quit smoking two years ago.

In April, she moved into her apartment on the outskirts of Norwich. A donor gave her money to purchase a futon, which she uses as a couch and bed, and St. Vincent de Paul Place provided her with appliances, a television stand and other accessories.

Because Nickerson was chronically homeless, she qualifies for a Permanent Supportive Housing Voucher through Thames Valley Council for Community Action, Inc., which allows her to pay 30 percent of her income for rent, said Corbin, an Uncasville resident.

Nickerson now works as a full-time volunteer six days weekly serving food, vacuuming and cleaning.

“I love every minute of it. It’s something that I am supposed to be doing,” she said.

She said she takes good care of herself by taking her bipolar medication, eating right, drinking nutritious beverages and exercising, which helped her lose 50 pounds.

Bryan also maintains a positive outlook, even though he lost his job in Colorado in April and was robbed of most of his identification, clothing and writing while traveling back to Norwich to live with his mother and other family members. The living arrangement did not work out, so in May, he began living in his car, which he still has because his mother made some of his monthly payments.

After becoming overwhelmed with anxiety, Bryan went through a six-week partial hospitalization program with group therapy and medication at Backus Hospital, and regularly meets with a therapist.

“I really recommend it (the program) if you’re having a problem… Be open-minded and be honest,” said Bryan, 49, during a telephone interview.

Even though it is taking longer to replace his identification because of the pandemic, he is making progress. Bryan said he recently had a face-to-face phone meeting with a Social Security representative. Service Coordinator Marissa Welch at Reliance Health is also helping him attain his birth certificate.

Bryan said the St. Vincent de Paul Place staff has been “exemplary” in their help, kindness and respectfulness.

“It’s comforting being able to go in there,” he said.

Way said they are able to help any homeless person who walks through St. Vincent de Paul Place’s doors with food, work gloves, hats, blankets and other provisions that can help keep them dry and warm.

Their other goals include keeping homeless people safe and working “together within our community network to try to help them find a safe housing alternative.”

In early December, Bryan said he learned from Welch that a donor had offered to pay three months’ rent on a room in a house owned by a local couple. Even though a room has not opened up yet, the owners offered him the living room couch on Dec. 11, which he accepted. When a room opens up he will move into it. Bryan has also learned about two potential job opportunities.

The Virginia Beach native said he is confident he can find a good job, because he has many skills to fall back on, which include carpentry, teaching martial arts, waiting tables, bartending and professional trumpet playing. He asked that his last name not be used for fear it could hinder his getting a job.

Bryan knows he needs to eventually find a job earning between $22 and $40 an hour to afford housing in southeastern Connecticut. “The rent is way too much,” he said. “You’re looking at $900 or more for a one-bedroom apartment. It doesn’t fit to what the demographic of this area is at all. It just doesn’t work.”

The former Norwich resident also realizes that if he attains a low-paying job initially, he will either have to work two jobs or get one or two roommates to be able to afford an apartment.

“There’s no quality of life,” he said, “and how much money are you going to be able to save up on the back end to move yourself along?”

For about the last six years, Way and Corbin have maintained a connection with homeless people living anywhere outside by talking to them “every single day” in person, by phone or texting them, and continually updating what they refer to as the “Extreme Weather Report.”

Other outreach workers and hospital, ambulance, police and Reliance Health professionals also contribute to it.

“If a person was in distress at night or on the weekend, they would be able to refer to that (report) as well to recognize this is a person who is literally homeless and they can address it appropriately because of that,” Way said.

She added that people have different degrees of crises in their lives. Sometimes, “they need something as simple as rental assistance so they don’t lose their housing. It could be they need help with utilities so that they can stay warm in the winter.”

Norwich currently has “about 35 people who we have identified as being outside right now,” Norwich Human Services Director Lee-Ann Gomes said during a telephone interview.

However, there is no longer a local shelter. That’s because Connecticut and the rest of the country have moved toward the Connecticut Access Network.

By dialing 211 (a United Way program supported by the nonprofit organization and the State of Connecticut), Gomes said one accesses the “front door” and obtains an appointment with a social worker who can triage the case.

“We funnel everybody so they can be entered into this Homeless Management Information System,” she said.

She said people in crisis are ranked by vulnerability so they know who to concentrate on first and who gets prioritized for supportive housing. For example, someone sleeping on their mother’s couch would be ranked lower than people dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues or individuals sleeping under a bridge outside.

People are also scored so they know who they should concentrate on first and who gets prioritized for supportive housing.

Gomes said they want to minimize the need to use shelters and utilize other strategies to keep people housed and attain housing for others. However, shelters are still “a godsend to people who don’t have any other place to go.”

Staff members “that work at shelters, especially the New London Homeless Hospitality Center (regional shelter) are just angels from heaven that do yeoman’s work to get people back to where they want to go,” Gomes said.

The All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London has also opened their sanctuary as a warm shelter this year.

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