Published September 29. 2012 4:00AM
Ever wondered how Connecticut broadcasting institution Faith Middleton, of public radio fame, came up with "the richness of life" for her eponymous WNPR talk show? The Hartford native, in her 32nd year of her show, might explain that in Mystic on Monday night. She's the main attraction at a fundraiser to help Mystic Area Shelter and Hospitality, Inc. (MASH) raise awareness of the growing numbers of homeless families.
MASH, which offers emergency shelter and re-housing assistance to area families with children, started out as an all-volunteer, faith-based initiative in 1999. Organizers were moved by a homeless woman who slept on the steps of the Union Baptist Church in Mystic for three nights in July of 1997. On her last morning there, she joined the church's worship service and left a dollar bill with a note of thanks in the collection basket. MASH has grown to a professional staff of five, plus volunteers and supporters, as the continuing economic grind pushes more area residents closer to or further into poverty.
"Family homelessness is largely an economic phenomenon," says Lisa Tepper Bates, MASH's executive director, contrasting it to the perception that people often have of single, low-income adults who may also face mental health and substance abuse issues. "These families are no more likely than their poor but housed counterparts to have a substance abuse or alcohol problem."
A single event often becomes the financial crisis that triggers the slide: loss of a job, an unexpected medical bill or an expensive car repair. The distinguishing feature of homeless families is that they do not have the safety net of family and friend resources, or they have already exhausted the help of others, says Bates.
"We live in a state that has the most and the least, as every place does, but it's quite a gap here," says Middleton, who volunteered to do this extemporaneous evening when she couldn't judge at MASH's Iron Chef competition in August. "It's certainly clear to me that there are not enough services, not enough beds to meet the growing demand. There are more working poor, including families living on the edge."
In 2009, the number of homeless families in rural and suburban Connecticut went up 33 percent, an unprecedented jump, Bates says. The rate has continued to increase by 15 percent each year in our region as jobs leave and the work continues to shift from manufacturing to more part-time, tourism-driven service jobs. More than two-thirds of the families MASH helps are headed by a single parent.
The Norwich-New London corridor has the distinction of having one of 10 lowest recovery rates in the nation. Combine that with a shortage of affordable housing - the region has the sixth most expensive rental housing rates in the country - plus aggressive foreclosure rates in the state, and our slightly higher minimum wage doesn't go far.
MASH provided shelter and services to 77 local families, including 255 children and parents, in the past fiscal year, which ended June 30. It helped to re-house 30 homeless families, another record.
"We put a very strong emphasis on either helping families stay where they are or helping to relocate those in emergency shelters back to where they came from," says Bates, noting that the least disruption for children is a primary driver. "For kids who are going through a very rough time, day care or school may be the only consistent element that they have to fall back on."
It's also often the least expensive option, too.
MASH works with a network of counterpart organizations in Norwich and New London on housing and needed related social services, including healthcare, mental health, employment service, faith communities and others. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has recognized the region's unified approach of addressing multiple related needs of homeless families.
Monday night's event will be a one-of-a-kind, unscripted evening with Middleton, who plans to speak about connections, passion, creativity and hope while talking about her dialogue with show guests. In 1996, she wrote "The Goodness of Ordinary People," a collection of true stories from her WNPR callers.
"It struck me one day that things that are good and bad happen in this world and it's all part of the richness of the lives we lead-it's a very messy, noisy, busy world we live in, quite chaotic, and we try our best to stay connected with what fills us up to make it through," says Middleton, a two-time winner of the Peabody Award, "and so I thought this really is what we do on this show, trying to get at where is the richness. We try to find people who present that in the works that they do or in the discussions they have."