Wendy Hamilton is a local activist and philanthropist who has been involved in homeless advocacy. She recently kept the following diary of her efforts to help one man she has known for years find housing.
Day 1 — Last month, “MC,” a 55-year-old chronically homeless man since 1996, told me he needed a place before winter, not a “shelter.” “I’m too old for this,” he said.
I agreed to help since he was more sober and desperate than usual in my 10-year experience with him. I knew he needed an escort and cash to get through the system here. I walked him two blocks to Liberty Community Services‘s intake offices on Church Street for instructions. (Liberty runs a supportive housing facility on State Street.)
We met with two nice social workers over the course of the day at LCS and at Fair Haven Clinic, where I cabbed him. MC was already in their computers but he added more detail and dates. He also stated that his wallet with all of his ID’s had been taken by the police. A birth certificate, photo ID, a physical, and a mental exam are required for “potential” housing, no promises.
The day was not easy. I had to bribe MC with money to sit through it. He knew I was his best and only chance. I knew he was capable of sticking it out, but it would be an unpleasant struggle.
Day 2 — After a hot night outside, MC met me in a local park to wait for City Hall to open at 9. We were first in line at the Office of Vital Statistics, where we learned you need an ID to get an ID.
I started to lose it, begging, offering money, and they called the guard.
We took the elevator with our escort and caught the mayor on the run. I blurted out, “Toni, we need your help.” It worked— next stop, the city prison reentry office, where Director Clifton Graves and company typed up a letter of intent with birthday and social security number.
Back at Vital Statistics, we gained a photo ID but were refused a birth certificate even though MC was born in Yale-New Haven Hospital and had never left town.
Day 3 — “Makeover Day” started at the new CVS store on Church and Chapel. After one hour of wandering this huge space, MC picked out $80 worth of urgent supplies. During this hour I learned that finding a public toilet can be as hard as finding an apartment. The Starbucks across the street had one but you needed a code for the lock. In extremis for an old lady with bowel issues, I cut in front of 10 customers and shouted for the code like my life and pants depended on it. (I still remember the code.) I collected MC and headed to my saintly barber on High Street for a wash, cut, and shave. I tipped him 100 percent.
Days 4-8 — Met with MC for pep talks and small bribes. So far so good, but the big hurdle, the physical, is coming up next week. I must keep him motivated. He now has a watch, a toothbrush and paste, a nail clipper, a hat and sunglasses, and cortizone spray for a mysterious rash with a serious itch. I realize I will have to organize a shower and new clothing before the exam. Luckily we wear the same size.
Day 9 — Weekend shopping for MC ensues. As I walk and bike the city I make cheaper than cheap discoveries in my neighborhood, the middle of town. First find: two-tone leather hi-tops for $20, then on to Water Street for $1 jeans and $5 tees. PCX and Rendezvous are homeless mainstays, real survival options for the hot or cold and broke. I buy an electric red and blue embroidered jacket for $26. Loud underwear and socks are available on sale at Urban Outfitters. I find a shirt, a hoodie, and a hankie on sale at J.Crew. I’m good to go from head to toe.
Later I check out New Haven’s cheapest hotel ($106), the Courtyard Marriot, off Broadway where the youthful staff are friendly and willing as I describe my endeavor. “No problem” says Victor the concierge.
Day 10 — Blood, sweat, and tears: his blood, my sweat and tears.
I meet with MC early in the morning. It’s already approaching 80 degrees. We head first to the Elm Street courthouse to deal with MC’s minor offense, hiding a beer. We sit for an hour while MC scratches and coughs. I edge away and finally get up to approach a prosecutor to explain my friend has lice and perhaps TB and needs to make his afternoon at a health clinic.
We are ignored and suddenly MC marches out for a beer break. (It’s 10 a.m.) I follow, as I hate this grim place, an insult to humanity. You can tell the rich from the poor by posture alone. Superior Court runs on inferior time, a broken system. As soon as you step into the place, your punishment begins, guilty or not. Good riddance.
We now head for the hotel (check-in at 11a.m.) but MC demands a beer stop on the way. He is good at spotting cops between covert sips and has probably peed on every tree in New Haven. He sits on a filthy curb while I stand baking in the sun.
We get to the hotel and as I’m about to hand Victor a generous tip, his boss comes out and says no room at the inn.
After much cursing outdoors, MC changes into his clean, new outfit al fresco. I notice he’s missing half of his toes (frostbite). We then adjourn to Box 63 to feed MC a beer and a burger. On to my High Street barber again for a shave and a haircut instead of the more desired shower. My barber calls us a cab on his cell and we’re off to East Haven to the health clinic.
We get there slightly early and wait 40 minutes for an MD, who gives us 10. He is nice but obviously not well versed on homeless reality ... yet. MC is pretty viable but is diagnosed with a couple of serious problems that are easier to treat if you have a place to live or get a hospital stay.
My blood pressure doubles in horror as I listen to the doctor’s pronouncements. One “problem” is extremely contagious and if untreated can lead to death. (I googled.) I ask for the ” works” from the blood lab as I wonder if there will be any other surprises. I am distressed and concerned.
After another endless cab wait, we return to New Haven. I am a wreck but MC is mellow and on his way to Hollywood Liquors, open 24/7 practically. I get home, strip at the door, and run to the shower.
Day 11— Another Valium moment ... I take MC to the closest dentist, at Chapel and Orange Street, without an appointment, for an emergency extraction. I am trying to avoid cabs. Ten minutes and $325 later, problem solved.
With prescriptions in hand, we head for CVS on Church and Chapel. I have to pay full price because his drug coverage is “questionable.” They suggest I get an insurance number for this (which I eventually do the following week after much ado). His itch cream, very pricy, is still pending, but his mouth feels better. The cream treatment requires a shower. which so far is a moot point for MC.
Day 12— We go to Liberty. First we learn that shower facilities for the homeless are miles away. (I consider a gym membership at the Y: $30 per month.) I need to make further appointments. as our ordeal is not even half over.
Day 13-15 — Bribes and begging continue and I monitor MC for oral infection.
Day 16 — I meet with MC’s social worker/caseworker to try and expedite his case. MC is missing in action today, and our caseworker is skating on thin political ice unless I can get MC to agree to rehab/therapy for his bad habits. We both think this is impossible, which means no housing even with his social security money.
This could mean a winter death for MC. I can’t force him to comply with the BS. If he is in jail, at least he gets a roof and three “meals” and meager medical care. This is a pricey solution for a state budget on the rocks.
Meanwhile I have to attend to a family emergency.
After hours of sweat and several hundred dollars, our goal has yet to be reached. October is the deadline for very cold weather. This odyssey, which few are willing to undertake, is pathetically slow and inefficient compared with the “Housing First” approach used by Albany, Alberquerque, and other U.S. cities. I promise you New Haven would be a cleaner, safer, and happier place were our homeless housed instead of “sheltered”.
Try to imagine their lives. These men and women want to survive, which means endless days and nights of walking, waiting, hiding no matter what their habits, disabilities, or personalities. The city has plenty of empty buildings but little will to do something humane with them, and land-squatting is illegal here.
MC gets social security disability ($1,290 a month) since he worked for 20 years after high school. He is an old 55. He owns nothing and has no one. One third of his income could add to a federally subsidized rent, and his needs could be met with the rest (beer and cigarettes).
MC told me he wants to be functional and useful. A room somewhere would sure help. I find him pleasant and gracious about my help. He reads the newspapers and does care about hygiene. He’s embarrassed by his homelessness. He used to have a house, a job, and a car. He never had a wife, children, or a felony, never “did drugs,” he told me. Fortunately he has a sense of humor but also of justice and he realizes he deserves more than certain death out in the cold. I agree.