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As Temperatures Drop, Hartford Works To Keep Homeless Safe

Bryan Robinson just has to “stick it out for a few more weeks” until the state’s Department of Housing places him in an apartment after four years of homelessness.

Unfortunately, this is one of those remaining weeks.

With frigid weather forecast for at least the next week, city officials, the police and nonprofit groups are hustling to make sure that there are safe accommodations for everyone in these inhospitable conditions.

They’re working to help people like Robinson, who said he’s choosing to stay out of the city’s shelters and the crowds they bring. Instead, he’s been circulating around during the day and bedding down at night in a friend’s shed, outfitted with socks, blankets and other supplies from some city donors.

It’s a moot point, anyway: Homeless advocates say that every shelter in the city is either close to or at capacity, with some bearing deep waiting lists.

Mayor Luke Bronin has activated Hartford’s “Severe Weather Protocol,” a measure that generates extra services and puts more police officers on the streets to find homeless individuals wherever they may be staying.

This year’s protocol is working on a slightly different model, according to Amanda Gordon, the deputy director for Journey Home, a nonprofit that operates the regional branch of the state’s Coordinated Access Network.

The program is built on a “warming centers model,” in lieu of furnishing extra beds at the city’s existing homeless shelters.

“We set it up that way to expand service to more people in an effective, financially efficient manner,” Gordon said. “Last year, we had a lack of resources for certain populations, especially single women, and we wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case this winter.”

In addition to the standard warming centers that operate during the day at various locations throughout the city, the Salvation Army has established an overnight warming center at the William Ware Recreational Center that will be open through March 31. The location furnishes a heated, safe space for homeless people overnight, and provides food, hygiene products and other services.

The city is also contracting with the Salvation Army to provide “overflow beds” for both single men and single women, if needed, Gordon said.

“We’ll keep you out of the cold; we’ll put a roof over your head,” Gordon said. “It may not be a bed, but we’ll make sure you have shelter.”

Journey Home and other homeless-advocacy groups are also operating “diversion centers” during normal business hours. Staffed by caseworkers, these centers are designed to help homeless people explore their options, acting as mediators, in some instances, to go back inside with family or friends to escape the cold.

“The shelter system is not the most ideal place for anyone to be,” Gordon said. “The goal is keep them in households if we can, and out of the system in general.”

In some instances, that’s an easy sell: There’s a general distrust of shelters by some homeless individuals. Ever wary, they’d rather sleep outside in secluded sections of the city, than face the anxiety or stress of living under someone else’s roof, by someone else’s rules.

That’s where Officer Jim Barrett and his colleagues in the Hartford Police Department come in.

When the city activates its severe weather protocol, specialized police details comb the city for homeless people who either don’t know about the warming centers and shelters, or actively choose to spurn them.

“We do our best to get them in, and for the most part, when we engage with these guys, they do come in,” said Barrett, a champion for the homeless known throughout the region for his work. “They know there’s a hot meal and other services waiting for them.”

Barrett has led teams of officers under bridges, inside abandoned buildings. On one recent night, he found a man who had set a small fire inside a boarded-up home, only to fall asleep and singe his coat and hat.

“Most want to get somewhere warm, but there’s a small bunch that feel they’re safer outside,” Barrett said. “Our goal is if they don’t want to come in, we can treat them, give them sleeping bag or other materials.”

Siubhan Bosley, who has found housing in Mercy House after six years of living on Hartford’s streets, applauds the warming centers and other programs offered by the city.

Before working up the nerve to overcome her social anxiety and enter the shelter system, she spent many long nights outside. Sometimes she’d find people who’d let her sleep in their home.

But “nothing’s free,” she said, and she took risks and made difficult choices to survive.

“These issues only get worse, only get more noticeable in the winter,” Bosley said. “I know there’s no simple solution, but I see so many foreclosed and abandoned buildings in this city, and it frustrates me.”

She is advocating for a reduction in barriers for the homeless to find permanent housing, urging patience and persistence among Journey Home and other service providers, regardless of the conditions outside.

“There’s a lot of fear about coming inside, but once people are willing to come inside and follow the rules, we have to be willing to meet them,” she said. “Help them with housing and other services; don’t make them go so far and then say I can’t help you anymore. Finish what you started; invest in us.”

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