Walter Stuckey was being treated for depression at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington when he learned that he’d have to go to a homeless shelter for his next bed. Stuckey had been a plumber for some 40 years. “I had a real good business, then I got sick with no insurance,” he says. When they told him about the shelter, his first reaction was one of shock. “Ah, come on. I led a good life, you know?”
The hurt in Stuckey’s voice captures some of the elemental parts of the way we think of homeless shelters in general. There is often an impression of them as dark, dank or horrid places, full of chaos. What Stuckey found when he arrived at the FISH house in Torrington, the local name for Friends in Service of Humanity of Northwestern Connecticut, surprised him. The shelter is not a horror. “I’m very happy to be here. … The staff here is very good. Everybody gets along good,” Stuckey says.
When people in Stuckey’s situation arrive at the FISH house, they are met with a battery of services, connecting them to health care, employment, housing and mental health resources if they’re needed. A doctor’s office is on site, as well as an industrial kitchen. Though it is busy, the atmosphere is one of stability.
In 2016, 112 people went through the shelter, and just over 2,000 accessed the food pantry, according to Deirdre Houlihan DiCara, FISH’s executive director. “We’re here to believe in everybody that enters our doors. Everyone deserves a roof over their head and a good life,” DiCara says.
The stability offered by the FISH shelter is crucial. Perhaps as much as the material needs of food, a warm bed and a shower, the atmosphere of support and calmness is vital to the people who rely on FISH’s services. For many, the condition of homelessness that brings them to FISH’s door is when they are at the bottom. The type of place they land when they hit bottom can shape the way they will recover. And this is the central paradox of FISH and many places like it: the ultimate goal for the organization is its own nonexistence, that the conditions which make homeless shelters and food pantries necessary would cease to be.
One of the most difficult structural challenges faced by the workers and clients at FISH is the lack of public transportation in the Northwest Corner, where buses to Hartford and Waterbury might only run once a day. This means that for those without cars, employment opportunities or access to services elsewhere can be difficult or impossible to get to.
Occasionally, at Christmastime, Santa Claus appears with toys for children in the shelter. “We want to try to keep our kids as innocent as possible,” DiCara says.
Around the end of 2016 into the beginning of 2017, state officials announced an “end” to chronic homelessness in the state. “Every verified, chronically homeless individual in the state of Connecticut has been matched with housing,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said at the time. When asked about the pronouncement during a lunch at FISH house, several of the workers let out weary laughter, the kind that holds back sadness or anger. “It was very misleading, because it was ‘chronic homeless.’ There are always new homeless people. So we’re full,” DiCara says.
Chronic homelessness, says Earl Gibson, one of FISH’s care managers, is defined as 365 consecutive days of homelessness, or four episodes in three years that total 365 days, in a place not meant for human habitation. Those bouncing around on couches of friends and family do not count.
A central message that the workers and clients at FISH make great effort to get across is that many of us are only one or two paychecks and an unforeseen medical bill away from homelessness. Put another way, the homeless are not too far away from us. “It could be me. I struggle every paycheck, too, and I’ve got a full-time job,” says Margaret Franzi, the director of the food pantry.
Robin King, who does program and facility management at FISH, points to the constant increase in property taxes that are driving people from their homes. King has worked at FISH for 22 years, and says that things are much worse than when she started.
As always, the easiest way to help FISH is to cut a check. Apart from that, towels, bedding and blankets are among the most-needed items this winter. FISH is also looking for someone to donate a space where the organization can take in furniture donations.
This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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