Carol Walter had developed a national profile in the drive to end homelessness — not by promoting larger shelters and bigger programs, but by returning people as quickly as possible to a home of their own.
"She was a relentless and fearless leader who never wavered in her commitment to the people who are homeless and poor in Connecticut," said Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania whose specialty is homelessness. "She was certainly one of the most effective and creative advocates in this country, whose loss will be felt for many years to come."
Walter worked well with everyone, from legislators and agency personnel to the people on the street she was trying to help. Her own history gave her special insight into people who were suffering, and an empathy for their vulnerability.
Walter died Dec. 27 of lung cancer at her home in West Hartford. She was 53. At the time of her death, she was the executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, based in Hartford.
"If you could be half of what she was, you'd be pretty good," said Lee-Ann Gomes, president of the CCEH board. "She was one of a kind."
Walter was born in Stamford on Sept. 14, 1959, and grew up in Bloomfield. As a teenager, she was attuned to the issues of feminism and concerned about the rights of minority groups, including lesbians and homosexuals.
She was brash, fearless and unafraid of standing up for what she believed in, and "insisted" on attending the Shanti School, an alternative high school in Hartford with less structure, said her father, Herbert Walter.
"She was an activist from the get go," said her older brother, Jeffrey.
At Shanti, she could devise her own curriculum — and managed to graduate without taking any gym classes.
She attended Antioch College in Ohio, and after graduating in 1981 she moved to Manhattan where she worked in the mayor's office running some projects. But while there she became addicted to crack cocaine. Eventually, she called her mother to rescue her, and she attended a month-long rehabilitation program and then lived in a halfway house.
"She bottomed out relatively fast and she did something about it pretty quickly," her brother said. "She got with the program the first time … and within a year she was on her way."
The searing experience — which she never hid — gave her personal insight into the problems faced by people who are ill, addicted or on the streets, although she was never without a home herself.
"The situation of her hitting rock bottom made her humble about working with a marginalized population," said Mary Patierno, a college friend.
Back in Connecticut, Walter lived in a halfway house for a while, and worked at Columbus House in New Haven, then as associate executive director at the Shelter for the Homeless in Stamford. She became director of the Stewart B. McKinney Shelter in Hartford, where she dealt with the myriad of problems that cause and perpetuate homelessness.
She also worked for a time with the Connecticut AIDS Research Coalition. where she helped people with AIDS find work, and she was a co-founder of the National Working Positive Coalition.
In 2006, she became the executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, which works around the state to try to prevent and end homelessness through community organizing, advocacy, research and education.
The recession that began in 2008 was already being felt acutely among lower income people and later spread to middle income families, who found themselves unable to pay rent or keep up their mortgages. Increasing numbers of people lost their housing, and there was pressure on shelters to increase the number of beds they had and to offer social services to help their residents.
But Walter was in the forefront of those who believed that putting people back in their own housing as quickly as possible was a better solution than merely increasing the size or number of shelters. She was instrumental in the state's adoption of Rapid Rehousing, a program that used federal stimulus money and other funds to help homeless families handle apartment down payments, or pay old utility bills so electricity could be restored — all necessary steps in regaining housing, whether public or private. The program also provides subsidies for low-paying wage earners and those seeking work.
"It was a housing-first philosophy," said Lisa Sementilli, deputy director of the Coalition to End Homelessness. "All the things you think are wrong with a person can be addressed better from stable housing."
The program has been used in five cities in Connecticut, and has helped 9,000 people in 4,000 households over the past three or four years.