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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Area homeless deal with frigid temps

    From left, James Hunter, Liz Deleon and her boyfriend, Jason Slover, and Jonathan Franco, who are all homeless, chat while at the warming shelter at St. Vincent De Paul Place in Norwich. The group said they usually live outside, but when it’s extremely cold they sleep in abandoned buildings. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Willie Hall, who is homeless, places blankets he received from staff members of St. Vincent De Paul Place Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in a bag. He and Valerie Marco, not shown, were at the facility while it’s open as a warming shelter in Norwich. The couple said they have been sleeping in an abandoned building in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Valerie Marco and Willie Hall, who are homeless, put clothing they received from staff members of St. Vincent De Paul Place in a backpack that a friend gave them Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, at the facility while it’s open as a warming shelter in Norwich. Earlier the staff gave Hall several blankets since the couple have been sleeping in an abandoned building in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Norwich ― When he emerged from his cocoon of sleeping bags and blankets inside an abandoned building in Norwich on Saturday morning, 54-year-old Jason Slover said it felt like it took several hours before he could feel his toes.

    The overnight temperatures this weekend dropped into the single digits, creating a life-threatening situation for area homeless.

    “It sucks. I’ve never ever experienced something like this in my life and I don’t wish it on anyone,” Slover said. “At least it’s a place to cover up and hunker down.”

    Slover and his fiancee, 43-year-old Liz Deleon, were among dozens of people who showed up at the St. Vincent De Paul Place in Norwich on Saturday to seek warmth, support and a hot meal. The soup kitchen doubles as warming center, food pantry and support center with a donated goods like coats, blankets and sleeping bags offered to visitors by the volunteer staff.

    Slover said he was not quite sure what the next night would bring.

    A rise in homelessness and a cold weather snap this week brought heightened concern for the homeless and renewed effort to bring an emergency overnight shelter to Norwich.

    The Rev. David Horst, chairman of Norwich Area Interfaith Association and an outreach worker for the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, said efforts are ongoing to identify a location and staffing for an overnight center to accommodate an estimated 50 homeless people in Norwich. Norwich closed its shelter in 2012 as the number of homeless declined and focus turned to housing solutions.

    “The reason it’s important now is the number of homeless has increased. We simply have more people outside,” Horst said. “Everyone agrees we need something and that is a significant move forward.”

    Norwich Human Services Director Kate Milde said the city stands ready to support the effort while logistics are worked out. Numerous organization are involved in the effort.

    Meanwhile, people are staying wherever they can to stay warm when the temperature drops, whether it’s at a friend or relative’s home, at an emergency shelter elsewhere in the region or in some instances places like one of the local casinos.

    “It’s a life or death situation,” Horst said. “As a humanitarian and moral issue, we cannot leave people outside.”

    Slover said his situation comes down to money. He and Deleon were priced out of a hotel they were staying in and started living in his car late this summer. While not ideal, it gave him a chance to save up money for an apartment from his job at Apple Rehab in Uncasville. When his car broke down, he was left with few options but to sleep outdoors.

    “When you don’t have the money, what else do you do?” Slover said. “I never thought I’d be homeless but here I am. It’s tiring. We just want a place to live.”

    Slover said he and Deleon crashed with two others on Friday night. They were not alone in braving the elements. Willie Hall, 41, and his girlfriend Valerie Marco, 45, both said they huddled up together with hand warmers under a stack of blankets in an attempt to stay warm. The couple left the Norwich soup kitchen on Saturday morning with a new multi-colored fleece blanket and sleeping bag.

    Hall spent some time in prison and said he’s had trouble finding permanent housing since he got out.

    “I don’t have the family support,” Hall said. “It was freezing last night. We had no heater. We slept in our clothes with a pile of blankets and body heat to keep warm.”

    Jillian Corbin, executive director of St. Vincent DePaul Place, said the nearest overnight shelters to Norwich are in Danielson, Willimantic and New London. Not all of the people without a place to stay opt for a shelter for a variety of reasons. She keeps track, however, of the ones she knows will be outside.

    The Norwich police station is considered a place of last resort for someone to get out of the cold.

    “Some people come to New London. We would find a place for them,” Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, said.

    But there are people who either can’t or won’t move to an unfamiliar environment, she said. Slover, for example, said it was a bit of a rough crowd and he’d prefer a spot to stay that was closer to work.

    New London is dealing with its own increase in people coming into the shelter and just this week received an offer from the Garde Arts Center to act as an emergency overflow shelter. The Homeless Hospitality Center can accommodate 40 people in its main facility and another dozens more at the adjacent Emmett Jarrett Hospitality Center.

    New London Mayor Michael Passero said he was not sure the Garde would need to be used but that it gave him peace of mind to have an an additional shelter.

    Zall said her agency is also using state Department of Housing funds to pay for hotel rooms if needed.

    “So far, nobody’s been turned away,” Zall said. “But the sheer numbers are starting to make homelessness a lot more visible here and across the country. This has always been a problem. This is why we started, because two people died at Bates Woods because they did not have a place to go.”

    Norwich Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein attributes some of the increase in homelessness to a rise in rents and evictions nationwide after the COVID-19 pandemic. This has forced more people, especially seniors, out of the housing market.

    “As a community this is a priority,” Milstein said.

    Anyone without a place to stay in Connecticut is urged to call 211.

    g.smith@theday.com

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