A Senator Walks In A Homeless Man’s Shoes

Allan Appel PhotoChris and Fred are roughly the same age, 39 and 40. “Fred” (not his real name) lost his job selling advertising in 2013; then he lost his home. Chris got a new job in 2013 making laws in Washington D.C.

The two hung out walking New Haven streets Monday to see if Fred’s experiences can help inform how Chris—freshman U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy—can address homelessness and begin to knit the raveling safety net through which more and more people are falling.

Monday’s visit was the most recent “step-in-their-shoes” journey for Murphy. This springhe went on a food stamp diet to experience what his poorest constituents eat. (Click here, here, and here for his diary of the experience.)

On Monday Murphy devoted eight hours to understanding homelessness not because he has a new bill to file on the issue or an agenda, but just to dig deeper into the issue in general, he said.

“There’s a limit to what you can understand about the reality of homelessness when you’re sitting around a conference table,” said Murphy

By arrangement at 7:30 Monday morning the senator, wearing a Boston cap, jeans, black sneakers and a green North Face windbreaker over a blue sweatshirt, met up with Fred at Columbus House on Ella Grasso Boulevard.

Fred (who asked not to be identified) is a former advertising salesman who has worked all his life. He made some bad personal choices, developed an addiction, and ended up losing his job and his home. He has been on the streets since October.

“I learned what’s involved in getting out at 7:30 a.m.”—when the shelter expects residents to be up and about job searching, going to their support groups—“and keeping your life together until they let you back in” at 3 p.m., said Murphy.

Here are some highlights of their day together:

7:30 to 9 a.m: They walked from Columbus House downtown so Fred could go to his methadone clinic. Then they sat for an hour or so at a downtown Dunkin Donuts and walked around “killing time until the library opened,” said Murphy. Mercifully it was 40 degrees out, Murphy added.

10 to 11:30 a.m.: First into the main branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, they got to the computer room and nabbed a terminal before they all filled up within a short time. Fred filled out job applications online, responded to want ads, emailed a relative or two, stayed in touch. Murphy, who said he made only an occasional editing suggestion, said the sales jobs are limited for Fred. “Anything on a bus route, because he doesn’t have a car.”

Because of that, Fred made an appointment with CTWorks to take the first steps to retraining out of sales into a field with more reliable income.. He’s thinking of barbering.

Noon to 2 p.m.: Because Fred had an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to attend, the men grabbed a lunch to go of hot dogs and beans at the Community Soup Kitchen at Christ Church on Broadway. Afterwards they walked some more until Fred met a friend on the Green; he tries to hang only with others like him who are trying to stay clean. The friend had found a portable DVD player in the trash. It still worked. They listened to a Kevin Hart comedy routine on the Green benches and then in Dunkin Donuts. It was getting a little loud in DD, so they left, reported the senator. He said he paid for the donuts.

2 p.m. to 2:30:  They killed a half hour at Starbucks on Chapel Street.

2:30 to 3 p.m.: They made the return trip back to Columbus House. Fred is being sheltered now off site through the Abraham’s Tent program. There was already a line-up at the main Columbus House facility of people hoping to get either the simple beds; or, for three dollars, a rented bed within cubby (pictured) for more privacy.

The senator’s take-away?

“This is a guy who’s trying hard, with kids, trying to get a job back. He’s clean; he’s in recovery. He’s worked his entire life. His path is getting himself straight, and then he’s whacked by a bad economy,” said Murphy.

Of course the picture is complicated. Murphy said that he and Fred as they trudged also spent a lot of time talking about Fred’s difficult upbringing, the drug culture from which it’s difficult to break free.

While Fred works on the personal responsibility side of recovery, Murphy said, the government should do more to provide the supports, including shelter. “There’s a continuum of housing that people need, and it’s broken today because we’ve stopped putting money into it.”

Murphy said his eight hours on the hard urban streets with Fred didn’t so much provide new illumination as put flesh and bones and shoe leather on what he’d already perceived.

He did say that he was moved by the amount of hope and planning out there.

“As sobering as a day like this is, it’s slightly inspirational to hear these guys think there is still a better day coming. Each of these guys has a path, but without the resources to execute the plan, they’re stuck,” he saidd.

Of the senator’s shadowing him, Fred said he at first had some trepidations that turned out to be unfounded. “He was legitimately concerned with people and with jobs, down to earth, genuinely interested in me, and not just to say that he did it,” Fred said.

Murphy said he was not preparing a bill on the issues and had no specific agenda except “to better understand what it’s like and what government can do.” he did say that Fred’s only current income is $100 from unemployment benefits. “This guy’s unemployment benefits run out today. The easiest thing we can do is to extend unemployment benefits,” Murphy said.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on December 30, 2013  9:37pm

I believe that all 535 members of Congress should have their pay eliminated and each one should spend six months collecting $311/month in unemployment benefits.Since they do not perform a useful function. Why should they be employed by the American people?It’s disgraceful that 1.3 plus million people will become totally without any means of feeding their families because our elected representatives are without a functioning heart and soul.These unemployed are anxious to find decent work. The job market is in total disarray as a result of thirty years of Free Market economic policies that serve to benefit the capitalist class only. Whatever happened to the working middle class that built this country. Trickle down economic policies devastated it and, Now we are seeing the increasingly harmful effects.It’s past time to turn away from the “I’ve got mind, so you can scratch for yours mentality that manifests itself.the other intellectually deficient Republicans and the spineless Democrats who can’t bring themselves to fight for what they know is the right.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on December 30, 2013  9:57pm

The best part about a politician shadowing a homeless man is that the press reliably shadows the politician.

This is a good story and I like Chris Murphy’s ‘get outside the building’ style to law making. Empathy is the best way to understand a problem that you don’t experience yourself.

posted by: Noteworthy on December 30, 2013  10:51pm

For those of us who have served the homeless and down and out - who have taken people to the shelters in the backs of cars from when we were children - watching Chris Murphy in his North Face down jacket trying to understand the plight of the homeless after all his years in public office is disappointing on two fronts. One that he uses the homeless as a prop for politics; the other that he doesn’t understand their problems or been part of serving them until this stunt.

posted by: robn on December 30, 2013  10:52pm

No homeless people were burned by klieg lights during the making of this propaganda piece.

posted by: Palin Smith on December 31, 2013  12:09am

Looks like the Senator is getting a first hand look at what his policies have done to America. He can walk the streets forever. Nothing will improve while he’s still walking the halls of Congress.

posted by: beyonddiscussion on December 31, 2013  2:49am

Chris Murphy is a good man. How many elected officials do you see spending their holidays like this? When I see young leaders like him who are the real deal I feel there may be some hope down the road for fixing the mess in D.C.

posted by: William Kurtz on December 31, 2013  10:36am

I am with Threefifths on this one. I have often thought that elected officials should be required to live—not just earn as salary, since so many of them are already wealthy—on nothing more than the median income in the area they represent during their time in office.

Personally I would be happy to see them being required to live on minimum wage.

How about for their first terms, at least?

posted by: OhHum on December 31, 2013  11:22am

A couple of weeks ago it was Rosa in her designer clothing feeling the plight of the underclass. Chris Murphy must have somewhat better handlers as they tried to dress him in what they thought was the uniform of the homeless. A little overdressed for forty degree weather? A little too clean and pressed? BTW Chris, the homeless don’t send out press releases letting the media know what they’ll be doing. Want to really feel the pain of the homeless? Spend the night under the bridge at the State St. entrance to I-91 without the bright lights of the media. Come on down, they’d love to have a chat and a cup of joe.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on December 31, 2013  12:28pm

We have no jobs…lets start there!!



over 200 to work at a fast food place??? Why because there are NO BLUE COLLAR jobs out there…the manufacturing industry has been sent over seas and down south. Even a job at McD’s is hard to get. Walmat…is really hard to.

We need to attract industry back to this state not just college degree jobs…and then there are those who say well lets get these people into college…well get a clue…not everyone can do college..not all minds are the same. Grrr

Chris we need blue collar jobs, we need more affordable housing (not the 360 State street kind) I mean the I am living on nothing kind of affordable I have a place to put my head and cook a meal kind!

posted by: TheMadcap on December 31, 2013  3:49pm

I like how a Senator actually does something to get a personal feel for what a homeless person goes through instead of just reading reports and hearing testimony so of course the response from some people is they’re mad the Senator himself isn’t homeless or whatever.

posted by: William Kurtz on December 31, 2013  6:36pm

“. . . so of course the response from some people is they’re mad the Senator himself isn’t homeless or whatever.”

Good point. I should have added that I admire Senator Murphy for taking on these challenges. Yes, they’re media-friendly but it’s a step on the road towards understanding others’ experiences.

But I do stand by the minimum wage thing. Most of us, I think, don’t live close enough to the margins to be truly affected by changes made in Washington. Even the impact of another couple of hundred dollars each year in taxes, spread out over 52 weeks, is blunted. But budget decisions made by Congress have a much clearer and more immediate impact on others. This is what I wish more representatives and senators understood.

posted by: Stan Muzyk on December 31, 2013  9:13pm

Sen. Murphy isn’t helping this homeless person by following him around.  He should attend Senate meetings, where he skips two out of three scheduled sessions and try to create jobs for the homeless, and other people.  Going to the Ukraine at taxpayer expense to get involved in their internal problem didn’t help his constituents—and only antagonized the Russian government.  I am looking forward for Sen. Murphy to provide a better planned agenda and more determined effort for success in 2014. Happy New Year, Sen. Chris Murphy..

posted by: CommonSense on January 1, 2014  1:15am

I have a better idea for Sen. Murphy:  Follow an average middle class CT worker around for a day and experience the various hardships we face…higher income taxes, food prices, gas taxes, etc.

@Threefifths, the last half of your post is a rambling array of conjecture and completely unsubstantiated claims. The “free market” is to blame?  We haven’t had a true free market in the U.S. for years…government regulation has killed it. What is your alternative???  Communism???  Socialism???  Let’s just say they have a checkered history of success with countries like Greece, North Korea and France.  “Intellectually deficient Republicans”...“spineless Democrats”...who are you talking about???

Don’t be snowed into thinking Murphy “cares”...the most dangerous place in the world is between Chris Murphy and a news camera.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 1, 2014  12:20pm

posted by: CommonSense on January 1, 2014 12:15am

@Threefifths, the last half of your post is a rambling array of conjecture and completely unsubstantiated claims. The “free market” is to blame?  We haven’t had a true free market in the U.S. for years…government regulation has killed it. What is your alternative???  Communism???  Socialism??? 

Can you disprove what I said.My alternative is what even it takes to help the people.Also if Socialism is so bad why are people more poor under capitalism? Under capitalism are not the rich geting richer.

posted by: robn on January 1, 2014  3:39pm


Sen Murphy could have done his King Lear bit without the press in tow. Bringing them along makes this about as genuine as kissing babies on election day.

posted by: Art Vandelay on January 2, 2014  6:44am

I’m no fan of Chris Murphy whatsoever, but I do give him credit for putting his money where his mouth is. Could he have managed it better? Indeed yes.  At least he’s getting a first hand look as to what his liberal progressive policies have done.  He might, JUST MIGHT change his views and voting patterns.

posted by: Stan Muzyk on January 2, 2014  10:23am

This typical Chris Murphy publicity stunt shows the Murphy is already running for reelection—as he has shown little time to perform his congressional duties—except for continued campaigning at taxpayer expense.

posted by: CommonSense on January 3, 2014  11:53am

“If Socialism is so bad why are people more poor under capitalism?”

Did you actually just say that???  People are “more poor” under capitalism because EVERYONE is poor under socialism…would you prefer that???  Is that your definition of “justice”??? 

Take North Korea for example, where people dig up dead bodies to eat them:

Or Greece, where they riot when even a Socialist president tries to cut social programs:

Aside from the fact that you have chosen to live in a capitalist country, the difference is, people are free to make their own fortunes in America.  Take Madam C. J. Walker…the first self-made female millionaire in America due to her ideas, innovations and acumen. Someone like her could never have thrived under Socialism…all her money would have been state money. Under Capitalism, if you want to do poorly in school, get into trouble, use drugs, etc don’t expect other people to foot your bill.  On the other side, I don’t expect other people’s money if they thrive due to their own ambition.

And who do you think pays for all the “more money” policies people like Murphy and DeLauro constantly request???  The “evil” Capitalists you speak of. Please educate yourself on economics before peppering this comments section with empty statements about trickle-down economics.