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Community Development , Homelessness , Supportive Housing

Homeless is Not a Disease. It's a Fixable Condition.

13 January 2015

Marianne O’Hare, of Community Health Center Inc.’s communication department, and producer of “Conversations on Health Care,” a nationally syndicated radio show on health reform

“All are welcome in this house”, said the pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Middletown whose halls were decked for the holidays on a recent Advent night. She was preaching to the choir - a congregation for whom homes have proven eternally elusive. This night, in this house of worship, hundreds of people were assembled who were homeless, had been or knew someone intimately acquainted with life on the streets in Connecticut. They gathered to remember their brethren who’d passed away in homelessness, leaving behind all their worldly goods in little more than the confines of a rusty shopping cart. There were 29 white candles on the altar.

 “Hallelujah, hallelujah…” the vocalist’s voice wafted over bowed heads. Leonard Cohen’s dirge of love’s promise lost a fitting holiday carol for this assemblage…“It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah…”

 “Homelessness is not a disease, it’s a condition” said one speaker. Nods and sounds of agreement rippled through the assembled crowd.

 “Charity won’t cure this condition. The cure for homelessness is housing. Government needs to act,” said Sister Patricia McKeon, executive director of Mercy Housing and Shelter Corp. Sister Pat has been the Sisyphus of Middletown’s homeless community for 34 years, first offering just sustenance, then shelter for those who could not do so for themselves. They serve 84,000 meals a year to men, women and far too many children living one meal shy of the last safety net. “I never imagined when we started this journey that our services would still be so needed” she lamented. Another chorus of agreement reverberated from the pews to the rafters. She had filled so many of their bellies countless times over the decades. Yet still so many hungered.

 Then came poignant testimony from Ebony Lockhart, a 22-year veteran of the streets, who finally got the help she needed for addiction and found a way out. Dressed in fine clothes and redolent in the love of her daughters and granddaughters, she offered the congregants a tale of victory – implausible to them but still possible at the end of a thousand miles of hard road. They took this sermon of hope with all the rapture of true believers. Some cheered out loud for their comrade who’d stumbled into just enough luck to light her own way out of the darkness. There would be no candle on the altar for Ebony this night.

 “Kim, Susan, Jimmy, James…..” names were read out loud while local politicians lit a candle for every homeless life snuffed out in the shadows within the past year. In spite of valiant efforts from the local Community Health Center caregivers who reach into the darkest places to bring dignity and health care to the rank and file of the streets. The homeless struggle is the politician’s struggle as well, tasked with finding the resources for housing - an ever present challenge in their quest to provide for all of their constituents, even those with no known address. The bank of candles lit up the altar like a bonfire.  A woman next to me sobbed quietly as strains of “Silent Night” wafted through the church.   “Round yon virgin, mother and child…”

 A social worker who had known the woman’s son encouraged her to join the processional of his comrades of the streets and light a candle for her child who chose not to come back to the home she had always provided – an open door, always waiting.

“He had a good home to come home to,” she said. Jimmy Tucker had recently sought state-sponsored housing but was denied. Then he died by his own hand. The burden and the struggle proved too much for him to bear. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she sought to bring the memory of her son into focus with a mother’s eulogy: “He was a devil, that one, but so talented, so loving, so good. It was alcohol, you know.” I nodded in sympathy.

 The congregants, the health care workers, the warriors on the battlefield of homelessness shuffled out into the Advent night for a shared meal of chili and cornbread at St. Vincent de Paul Middletown, a beacon of light in Middletown’s North End founded by the Sisters of Mercy. They filed past Main Street’s storefronts festooned with the promise of the Christmas season, leaving behind a church illuminated by 29 white candles burning down the wick. A shopping cart draped in a white sheet, a silent sarcophagus of artifacts from a life lived full and true along a thousand miles of hard road. Their struggle, at least, had reached a journey’s end.

 “Sleep in heavenly peace.  Sleep in heavenly peace”.

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