Chris 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.