Night Life: Hartford’s South Park Inn

The early December rain is steady and driving. An ugly, slate sky drains its cache onto the streets of Hartford which in turn carry it away in dirty rivulets to storm drains and sewers.

It’s the kind of soulless day that makes you appreciate not having to go out in the dismal weather if you don’t have to.

Yet for any number of homeless residents in and around the Hartford area, the choice of battling the elements isn’t really a choice at all, but a simple reality.

Jose, a 50-year-old disabled army veteran knows all too well what it means to be out on the streets, having recently spent two months living beneath a bridge. Looking like a much-weathered version of the Marlboro Man, he’s been homeless on four or five occasions since his discharge in 1983 and in his words; just trying to survive.

Being an old soldier, he says with a smile, makes it a little easier, because he knows how to get by and only has to worry about himself.

But it doesn’t change the fact that when you are living under an overpass, there’s no running water or toilets, which Jose said is probably the most difficult aspect of being homeless; that and finding food. “We ate where we could and when we had money; we went out and did things like normal people,” he said.

From encampments under overpasses to the backseat of cars, the homeless represent nearly every walk of life ranging from the downtrodden, the mentally ill and addiction-laden, to families fallen on hard times.

And every day at South Park Inn in Hartford, 118 women, children and men like Jose are fortunate enough to find both temporary and long-term respite from a world that has left them without anyplace else to go.

“There’s a limited number of beds and we’re always full,” said Brian Baker, the shelter’s long-time assistant director. “The tide’s always coming in; we get three families moving out and in the blink of an eye, there’s a knock on the door.”

Day in and day out, every season of the year, the shelter serves as an eternal box office where there’s always a line at the ticket window.

Inside on a late Wednesday afternoon, it is warm, perhaps uncomfortably so, but it’s a far cry from being outside in the unrelenting rain. The smell in the air is a mixture of bleach and tacos accompanied by the underlying scent of numerous of people living in close quarters. It’s not unpleasant, but not entirely pleasant either.

One by one, diverse clients both young and old,  file through the doors and fill up the shelter for the evening. Though it feels somewhat chaotic and overwhelming, staff members say that despite the hubbub, it really is “organized chaos” and systematically go about the ritual of checking everyone in.

Already there, showered and in her pajamas is 31-year-old, Erica with her 3-year-old daughter, Emily. A single parent, Erica worked as a concierge at Hartford’s Park Place Towers for more than five years, while maintaining her own apartment.

But it all changed after her young daughter was diagnosed as having autism and she was unable to find anyone to care for her. “I really didn’t have many people I could trust to watch her because she wasn’t able to speak; she couldn’t tell me if anyone hurt her or anything. So, I was scared because of what I went through as a child.”

Erica doesn’t elaborate, but she said that she ultimately left her job to be with Emily and it wasn’t long before she found herself homeless. “I ended up staying from house to house; staying at friends’ house, families’ house… but it got to the point that all they would do was complain about [Emily], so I came here.”

At first she found it overwhelming. “I was scared about coming to the shelter because of all things that you hear about shelters. Like, ‘Oh my God, you’re a bum, you’re homeless.’ But you never know until you are actually in those footsteps. You just don’t know.”

Now that her daughter is enrolled in a special need’s preschool during the morning hours, Erica has been using the time to search for an apartment and go to the library, where she said she does research. She plans on moving out soon and living on her own again. “I would like to finish school; I didn’t get to because my mom passed away when I was 21 and I was always afraid to go back. But I’m not anymore because I have Emily, she’s my future and her future is my life.”

Also staying at the shelter is 54-year-old Melvin. He’s a short-timer who is temporarily residing in the transitional living program between a recent 40-day hospital stay and his next destination, Veteran’s Crossing; a rooming house in East Hartford for homeless veterans.

Melvin, bright-eyed and earnest, offers an explanation of how he found himself at the South Park Inn. “I didn’t know for 33 years that I had a mental illness… I didn’t know I was bi-polar. I would make a lot of irrational decisions over the years. I lost some very, very good jobs.”

Discharged honorably from the Air Force, Melvin found himself chronically repeating a perpetual downward spiral. “I would have these episodes where sometimes I would lock myself in the house, draw the curtains and shut the phones off and not talk to anybody for days and never knew why. What they tell me at the VA is that I would self-medicate with alcohol.”

It’s his second time at a homeless shelter. “I never thought to myself, ‘Five years from now, I wonder if I’m going to be in a shelter?’ It just kind of happens and I’m hoping this is [the end of] it.”

Frank Rector, a psychiatric advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) for the Capitol Region Mental Health Center, has been coming to South Park two nights a week for the last 12 years to meet and work with clients who have mental issues.

He believes that contrary to many popular stereotypes there’s just one reason that people become homeless; poverty.

“A lot of people think it’s substance abuse or mental illness, but those problems occur across all socioeconomic groups, cultural groups and even around the world.”

Those problems, however, become over-represented among the homeless due to various reasons including lost opportunities, disconnection from families, job loss and other absent support systems. Without them, he said, it’s difficult to find the resources necessary to find a clear path out of the situation.

“Many celebrities have mental illness and psychiatric problems and substance abuse problems that are worse than many people in the shelters. Why aren’t they homeless? They aren’t homeless because they have the resources to get the kind of treatment and access to the things they need without becoming homeless.”

Far from stereotypical, most individuals who find themselves at an emergency shelter, are not the clichéd craggy, hobo-looking people pushing shopping carts, but are instead individuals of every ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender and age.

And despite what people may think, Rector said that no one wants to find themselves on the street. “I have yet to meet anybody in all these years who truly chooses it. They may say they do, but it’s really the only option they have that helps them maintain some sense of control or dignity.

“They want the same things you and I want. They don’t want to live on the street. They would prefer a warm bed, they would prefer a safe place to keep their belongings, they would prefer privacy, they would prefer not to shower with other people. They would prefer not have their belongings searched when they come home every day.”

But among the clients, there are those who suffer from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia and helping them can often be difficult. “It’s not easy to navigate the complex maze of health care systems,” said Rector, “Some people require a more flexible, individualized access.”

Congo native  “Beverly Hills,” as she prefers to be called, is one such client. Originally from Africa, ‘Beverly’ emigrated to the U.S. many years ago on a search. “I wanted to be close to Diana Ross, I like to be close to her, she’s my mother.”

She started off in California but didn’t last long. “I had to leave my apartment because I was hearing voices; I had to go to the hospital.”

The voices, she said, were telling her that they hated her and revealed to her that she was Diana Ross’ daughter.

Beverly bounced around from New York, to Chicago before ending up in Hartford at the shelter. Rector isn’t certain how things will turn out for her or where she might eventually end up.

“I don’t know…a lot of it depends on her. We are hoping that she takes advantage of some transitional housing that is available to her.”

He said that she’s been able to live on her own in the past and with mental help assistance and medication, he thinks she can likely do it again. “She’s a wonderful lady. I don’t know if I could function like that in a different country and be homeless. Who knows? It’s a journey, not a destination.”

Arriving at the shelter for the first time is New Jersey-native, Waleska. Her long curly hair still wet with rain, she admits that she’s traveled to Connecticut to get her life together. She’s come from Las Vegas; where she went three years ago to find work. “Times got hard, you know?”

After living from place to place, Waleska decided to return to the East Coast and found the South Park Inn on the internet. She said that she came to take advantage of the shelter’s programs to help her straighten her life out and admitted that she had no other choice.

“If I turned anywhere, I’d have to turn back to the streets and then go back to my old ways, so this is going to set me straight. If this is what I want to do, I’ll stick to the rules and I’ll straighten my life and this is what I need; it’s stability for me right now.”

She dreams of reclaiming a life she once had; one that included a home and family. “I used to have that when I was 18 years old. I worked, I had my own house, car, had kids. Should’ve had a husband but things just went different. That’s what happens, you know? I turned to drugs and went bad. The streets are just no good. I know this is what I need.”

Fortunately for Waleska there is a bed available for her and she plans on staying as long as she can.

Their stories are nothing new to the staff at the shelter.

After working there for more than five years, Supervisor Angel Medina said that he’s pretty much seen it all and that there’s not a lot that surprises him anymore. “No matter who comes through that door; color, race, ethnicity…you’re going to help them. That’s why I’m here and why I’ve been here so long.”

A former corrections officer, Medina has found his true calling in helping those who often can’t help themselves. “You have so much more opportunity to actually help somebody.” And knowing that often it allows someone to get back on their feet is the compensation.

“At the end of the day when you do help someone and a month later, two months, a year, they come back just to say ‘Hi’ and say they’re doing good and say ‘Thank you,’ that’s the reward. Not everyone does it, but those who do, you feel good about it.”

Medina has reached into his own pocket on more than one occasion to help when the circumstances have called for it. And though he shrugs it off, embarrassed and modest at the same time, it’s a small gesture of humanity and one that he insists allows him to sleep at night. He also sleeps well knowing that despite shelter policy, on cold, rainy or snowy nights, he won’t turn away anyone who comes to the door.

He also lets them know that if there are beds available the next day, they have someplace to stay, if not, they’ll need to find another shelter. But even so, if they return again the next night with nowhere to go, Medina tries to figure it out, even if the shelter is full.

Maritza Rosa, an assistant supervisor at the South Park Inn, admits that the job isn’t for everyone; but it’s one that she finds to be personally fulfilling.

“If at least one person can make it, if one person can be successful, then that’s one less person out there needing help.”

And the people who need that help so often run the gamut.

“There’s some very intelligent, really creative, smart people here; it’s just that they hit that bump on the road and need that extra help… that push. Not everybody is that homeless person under the bridge, pushing a carriage full of cans.”

David, 55, is the perfect antithesis of carriage-pushing stereotype. With his close-cut silver hair and striking blue eyes, he looks like he belongs in a three-piece suit, negotiating contracts in a boardroom.

But far removed from the executive lounge, David is staying at the shelter as part of the transitional living program. And far from a suit, he wears a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up which reveal several large scars on his forearms.

He arrived in August after a stint at the Somers State Prison. “I have psychological mental issues,” he quietly admits. “Major depression, anxiety, borderline traits, suicidal tendencies…I attempted suicide.”

His struggles translated into years of drinking and one too many DUI’s earned him the jail time. Once he got out, he had nowhere to go and nothing left of his former life; which saw him employed as a HVAC mechanical engineer. “I built schools, hospitals, worked at Pratt and Whitney and worked on some really nice projects.”

But his chronic bout with depression and the resulting alcoholism cost him everything he had.

“I lost my job, got laid off, had no work, companies are closing. I ran through my unemployment.”

David hit the proverbial bottom and said that this most recent chapter in his life has by far been the darkest. “I couldn’t imagine going through what I went through. I’ve hit bottom before, but this is the deepest hole I’ve dug for myself.”

He’s both hopeful and emphatic, though, that he’s going to get his life back. Attending  programs that the shelter offers, David is channeling his energy into finding his way out of the hole and is adamant that he’ll succeed.

“I want to finish some schooling, certification courses, go back to work, get a good job, get my life back together, get my own place to live, my license. I want get my life back and be a significant person in the community.”

And though they’ve been good to him at the shelter, he knows that there’s a better life out there for him if he can just find a way to get there.

“I don’t want to live like this; this is not a life.

“The way I look at it, this is just a train stop, just a station in life that you’re hanging out for a little while and then get back on the train and go to better places.”

Originally Published Hartford Magazine February 2012
Feature Photo Bradley E. Clift