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'No one should have to sleep outside': NL shelter director 'passionate' about helping homeless

New London — Climb a steep and winding set of stairs at New London’s Homeless Hospitality Center off State Pier Road and you’ll likely find Catherine Zall in her office, unfazed by the nonstop rumbling of traffic moving past on the Gold Star Memorial Bridge just outside her windows.

Zall, 64, has served as executive director of the center almost since it was founded in 2006, when the death of a homeless man in the woods a week after the city’s winter shelter closed led to a task force and a movement to better serve the homeless here.

Today, the center is headquartered in two buildings off State Pier Road: the one where Zall’s office is located, and another with 40 beds that are always full with people who have no place else to go.

The center also 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 with minimal assistance. Combined, those properties house about 30 people who previously were chronically homeless. In addition, the center has placed another 40 previously homeless people in permanent supportive housing, providing them with vouchers to pay their rent on the open market.

Zall, who is also the part-time pastor of New London’s First Congregational Church, takes great pride in those numbers.

“I could just run down a list of the people who were homeless and living in the parking garage, living beneath the pier, living all kinds of places, and I would say since we have started we must have housed at least 50 of those,” she said.

She acknowledged there are still people out there, some who don’t want to be helped, and others who are newly homeless.

“What I see now more and more is a whole segment of society that lives right on the edge,” she said. “They work part time, or at a minimal wage or seasonal job, and I can’t even describe to you how precarious and close to the edge that those people are.”

Zall said an illness, a loss of job or a car that breaks down can lead to homelessness.

"Many of them have never been homeless before, and they are the vast majority of people who we see at the Homeless Hospitality Center now,” she said.

“This is different than chronic homelessness,” Zall continued. “And it’s the passion for me right now — the absolute horror of these people who have held on by their fingertips for a very long time and when they fall out of what they were holding onto by a thread, when they fall out of that little, very precarious life, there is nothing.”

Jeanne Milstein, New London’s social services director, said Zall "is one of the most extraordinary people in New London. She is a treasure.”

Under Zall’s leadership the Homeless Hospitality Center’s work to house homeless people has led to fewer police calls, fewer emergency room visits, and less intervention by the city’s service providers, Milstein said.

“She has helped to save lives and also taxpayers' money. And she is innovative and creative, and she has a big heart,” she said.

Above Zall’s office desk is a painting of St. Francis of Assisi, who abandoned a life of luxury for a life devoted to Christianity after reportedly hearing the voice of God, who commanded him to rebuild the Christian church and live in poverty.

And on the walls of her office, posters of the Beatitudes — the eight blessings recounted in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew — including the first, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Something was missing

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, to a Dutch father and an American mother, Zall — her maiden name was Catherine ten Kate — didn’t set out to be a minister or to run a homeless shelter. Her father worked for KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines, and she would move with her family to South America and Holland before they came to Connecticut and settled in Westport when she was in second grade.

After high school, she majored in English at Brown University and recalls being active in student government and protests.

“I can’t even remember what it was that we were protesting about,” she said with a laugh. “But it had to be something that was grievously wrong that had to be corrected immediately.”

She won a fellowship at Brown and went to Camden, England, for a year, where she worked for the department of social services, creating employment opportunities for underemployed people. Back in the States, she was hired by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence to do what she described as “low-level outreach work.”

She had married by then, and she and her husband moved to New York City to pursue higher education degrees at New York University; she earned an MBA in accounting, and he went to law school.

Zall would hold a number of different jobs in New York, including working for one of the Big Eight accounting firms and serving as deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services. In that position, she directed a staff of 650 and more than four dozen nonprofits to help recipients of public assistance secure unsubsidized employment.

About 1997, Zall and her family left New York City and moved to Lyme. Her parents had settled there and were ready to move on, so Zall and her husband bought their home. She would work for the Connecticut Child Care Assistance Program, and later, as a project manager for the state Department of Social Services. Zall said she was married for 25 years, and her children grown, before she and her husband amicably divorced.

But there was still something missing so Zall, who was raised a Roman Catholic, decided to go to Yale Divinity School.

“I didn’t have like God pick me up and speak to me, you know, some people have stories like that,” she said. “And I really enjoyed all the work that I did, all of it. ... But I kind of came to a point that a root of a lot of the social problems that I was seeing, the real root cause of them, was spiritual.”

Religion comes alive

The Rev. David Good, who was senior pastor of the First Congregational Church in Old Lyme at the time, would have a big influence on Zall’s spiritual development. Before she entered divinity school, he asked her to visit an “intentional Christian living community” in Americus, Ga., called Koinonia Farm, and to use her accounting knowledge to help them sort out financial problems.

She would make multiple trips there over more than a year, and those visits would change her life.

“It just came alive to me what religion was about,” Zall said of her time at Koinonia.

She read the books of Koinonia Farm's late founder, Clarence Jordan, and listened to audio tapes of him speaking. In the day-to-day life at the farm, for the first time, she saw what she believed spirituality should be.

“It was like so much of religion when you go through the motions,” she said of what she wanted to move past. “It’s all like so surface, so bland, lukewarm. But (at Koinonia), oh my God, it was not lukewarm.”

She entered divinity school with a fresh perspective on religion, and took her first position in 2002 as associate minister at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.

Through her relationship with Koinonia, and a similar place, the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Ga., Zall connected with the Rev. Emmett Jarrett, who eventually would be instrumental in forming New London’s Homeless Hospitality Center.

Zall saw a letter in the Open Door’s newsletter that Jarrett had written, and she went looking for the minister from New London who had religious views similar to hers.

Jarrett, who died in 2010, founded St. Francis House in New London, another intentional Christian community. Like Good, he would have a strong influence on Zall.

Active on health issues

Stirred by death of a homeless man, Bill Walsh, in the woods along the New London/Waterford border, Jarrett worked to find community partners to open a permanent homeless shelter in 2006, recruiting Zall to help with finances. A few months later, Zall became executive director.

She became a part-time pastor at New London’s First Congregational Church in 2007. About five years ago, Zall moved to New London.

“I really, really like New London a lot,” she said. “I love the size. It’s big enough from my point of view to be really, really interesting. We have an interesting level of problems. And I find that I love being in a place and knowing it. So when you are the pastor of a church and run something like the hospitality center, I feel like every place I go I’m part of the fabric of the place.”

Her church gave up its building at Union and State streets a couple years ago, selling it to another congregation, and her membership that regularly attends Sunday services numbers only about 15 now.

Most of Zall’s energy goes to the homeless center, where she spends a great deal of time ferreting out grants to help run the place, dealing with personnel and guest issues, and managing the $1.4 million annual budget.

She recently was named the community representative to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital’s board of directors, an appointment required as part of the affiliation agreement between L+M and Yale New Haven Health.

“I’m not doing it because I have nothing else to do,” she said. “But I just see here every day that health is a huge part of why people become homeless.”

She was a co-recipient of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut’s 2015 William Crawford Distinguished Service Award, given to individuals “who exemplify the spirit of service to one’s neighbors, and who have contributed to improving the quality of life in eastern Connecticut.”

Zall said she was pleased to be honored by the chamber, and to provide more visibility for her work with the homeless.

“I just felt it was really cool that the business community, as opposed to other do-gooders, would honor us,” she said.

Motivated by faith

Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said Zall is a leader in the state and the nation in working to end homelessness.

“It’s nothing short of remarkable, what Cathy does,” said Tepper Bates. “She really has filled a very important gap of leading nonprofit support for our most vulnerable people in need when there have not been a lot of municipal resources.”

She said Zall doesn’t just provide a bed for a night, but helps people to find permanent, affordable housing and whatever else is necessary to take back control of their lives.

“What she’s doing is not just good for the people she’s helping, it’s good for the community, too,” Tepper Bates said.

Zall said she would like to think that someday the work she’s doing would no longer be necessary, but she’s not at all optimistic.

“I hate to say it, but I think it’s going to get worse,” she said.

And that’s what keeps her motivated.

“It’s my faith and compassion that keep me going,” she said. “It’s not the money or because it’s easy or anything like that. I’m just on a tear. I think this is really important and that I have something to contribute here.”

Her cheeks flush and her voice rises as she talks about the shelter.

“When I see people who are here, honestly, because of an illness, or they lost their job, or whatever, and they have nothing," she said, "and they can’t get back on their feet because they can’t come up with the $15 to get a birth certificate so they can replace the IDs that the landlord confiscated with all their other stuff when they were evicted ... I absolutely cannot live with that."

“I cannot live with the fact that somebody, by bad luck or by chance, has ended up here. No one should have to sleep outside,” she said.

Often all that is needed is connecting the guest with services, or money to refill a prescription, or a bed for few nights, she said.

“When I see people come through the door, they are terrified because they don’t know what to expect,” Zall said. “Maybe they’ve slept outside or in their car for a few nights. Maybe all they know about a shelter is what they’ve seen in the movies.”

At the Homeless Hospitality Center they get a cot and a shower, access to food and services, and help toward finding a home again.

“I am passionate about this,” Zall said. “And I will take on anybody who says that’s not something that a civilized city like New London should be doing for people who are really between a rock and a hard place.”

She remembers when city officials several years ago tried to shut down the shelter, when it was operating at St. James Church.

“We were using the argument that this was under the religious freedom act and people were saying, ‘Oh, churches aren’t about that,’” she said.

“And I’m like, ‘Where was your religious education?’ Do you think Jesus cared about worship services? No. That’s what this is about.”

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