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Counters venture out in search of the homeless

By Sasha Goldstein

Publication: The Day

Published January 30. 2013 4:00AM   Updated January 30. 2013 8:21PM
Tim Martin /The Day
Laura Edelstein of Westerly, right, a volunteer coordinator at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, examines a map with Cindy McGrath of Old Lyme, in the parking lot of the Faith Fellowship Church in New London, as they begin the 2013 Point in Time Homeless Count in New London Tuesday. They are volunteering their time along with McGrath's 14-year-old son Zachary McGrath, left, and others from the area's social service agencies.
Biennial HUD survey takes place on relatively warm night in region

New London - It's a scavenger hunt without much of a happy outcome.

Under bridges, deep into stretches of woods and in covered doorways, volunteers scour the cold streets for their human tallies.

Tuesday was the official Point in Time count of the homeless, an affair that takes place every two years in the last week of January and is designed to determine the regional number of those without homes and whether they use local shelters or not.

Mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the biennial surveys - confidential and without participants' names - are also used for homeless services grant applications and give HUD an indication of regional homeless numbers, said David Pascua, housing coordinator for the Southeastern Connecticut Mental Health Authority. Pascua coordinated the count effort in Norwich and surrounding towns.

On Tuesday, the warmest day in about 10, about 19 volunteers met at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center's day shelter at 19 Jay St. Under the direction of Erik Clevenger, the housing director at Reliance House Inc. in Norwich and the New London region's count coordinator, the seven groups were given maps with geographical grids - from Stonington to the Lymes - to search for homeless residents.

Before they set off, Clevenger gave some tips: always think safety first, don't wake sleeping people and avoid those who appear intoxicated or agitated. Counts from local shelters, Clevenger said, would come later in the night directly from the shelters.

While the Point in Time count is done every two years, Clevenger said, counts of homeless people who stay in shelters are conducted every year. In 2007, Clevenger said, the annual count turned up a total of 193 homeless households in the region. That number increased in 2009 but went down again in 2011, he said. This year's numbers will be anybody's guess, Clevenger said.

Volunteers also administered a 31-question survey with a wide variety of questions that aimed at getting to the cause of homelessness.

Wearing neon yellow "CT Counts" buttons and armed with clipboards, surveys, flashlights, gift cards, bus passes and toiletries, volunteers were teamed up and hit the streets around 6 p.m.

Volunteers Noermila Cardena and Heidi Potter were assigned an area encompassing much of downtown New London, from Federal Street to Fort Trumbull.

Down to the SEAT bus stops on Water Street and into the train station, Cardena and Potter approached everyone they saw: "Hi, we're doing a count tonight and just wanted to make sure you have a place to stay tonight." All replied that they did but thanked the women for taking the time to check.

On City Pier, Cardena, who works at the Homeless Hospitality Center, spotted two men she knew. They were watching the trains go by and told Cardena they'd soon head to the overnight homeless shelter, at 76 Federal St.

The women continued on their quest, asking a few people at Waterfront Park if they were set with accommodations for the night. Looping back around onto Bank Street, Cardena ran into another familiar face, Jose Rodriguez, standing in front of Mambo Restaurant.

Rodriguez, 52 and a homeless veteran, was chatty Tuesday night. Rodriguez has knee and back issues and is on disability but said that in the past, he'd done a bit of everything: driven trucks, framed houses, taken photos that hung in galleries.

Rodriguez said he has a cure for homelessness. Instead of foreign aid, he said, the government should "take care of the homeless and the hungry, and take care of the United States."

Down the street, Rodriguez met up with his wife, Melissa Connors. Originally from Wethersfield, Connors said she's been homeless since 2005, when she fled a domestic violence situation. She's since lost her job and car and become disabled and unable to work.

Life on the street, she said, isn't easy, though she hasn't turned to drugs or prostitution like many homeless women, she said. The key to helping the homeless, she said, is providing programs that last for longer than 60 or 90 days.

"It's like you're a sinking ship," Connors said. "You start sinking, and get on these programs that bail you out a little bit and then they throw you out into the hurricane. People really need safe, secure housing and food."

s.goldstein@theday.com

Editor's note: This version corrects an earlier version.

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