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Dignified model to address homelessness

Published September 22. 2013 4:00AM

With the opening of its new facility in renovated old buildings, the New London Homeless Hospitality Center can continue with added zeal its innovative, holistic approach to dealing with the challenge of homelessness. It is not an exaggeration to say that what is about to take place on the grounds of a former Polish National Church could become a model for moving past the traditional approach of sheltering people in desperate need to one that seeks to address the causes of that desperation and provides opportunities for a new start.

In renovating the former Sts. Peter & Paul Church on 730 State Pier Road, resting literally in the shadows of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge that looms above it, the leaders of the homeless care organization have incorporated lessons learned from years of assisting the homeless.

Contractors divided the former worship space into two levels. On the first floor is the dayside "hospitality center." There individuals will have a place to safely gather, interact, consult with staff on finding employment and utilizing government assistance that might be available to them, and develop a plan to find a place to call home.

In addition, the new facilities address the practical. There are showers, a laundry room in the adjacent former rectory, phones and the ability to receive mail.

The newly added second floor provides sleeping accommodations in a barracks-type setting. The large open room will have up to 50 cots, men on one side, women the other. The shelter accommodates only adults. Even here, the design incorporates lessons learned. A ventilation system will mitigate the malodorous result of 50 adults sleeping in close proximity.

A refinished basement will provide a respite for up to eight to 10 individuals who have medical issues that compound the difficulty of being homeless. The cancer patient, weakened by chemotherapy treatments, will not have to spend the day on the streets; the diabetic will have the opportunity to let a problematic wound heal.

Also in the renovated basement space will be a small medical room. This will allow better control of the dispensing of medications - the street value of which can make a tempting sales item for an individual in desperate need of cash or be a target for theft, said Catherine Zall, executive director of the Homeless Hospitality Center. The small clinic also provides a space for visiting medical professionals to meet with individuals staying at the facility.

"It's dignified," said Ms. Zall of the approach to helping the homeless.

The rectory will have offices, meeting rooms and provide programming space. Ron Steed, president of the board of directors, said the goal of all this is to break the cycle of homelessness.

"We are trying so hard to shorten the stays," he said.

Every individual staying for extensive time at the shelter must develop a plan to change his or her situation. If there is a source of income, such as a disability check, the guest must turn much of it over to the center staff for savings, providing seed money, perhaps, for finding an apartment or to meet other needs.

The majority of those using the shelter are "short timers," individuals who hit a low point and find themselves homeless, but can recover quickly enough to find an apartment or someone with which to stay.

But for others the problems are chronic.Jobless men 50 and older, many with criminal records and substance abuse or mental health issues, their skills no longer applicable in the job market, "Find it almost impossible to get work," said Mr. Steed.

In moving to the new facility over the next few weeks, the leaders of the hospitality center will fulfill a promise to move out of the central business district. The shelter at St. James Episcopal Church will close, as will the day center at All Souls New London Church.

Most importantly, the new facility will be better suited to help people repair damaged lives, fulfilling the mission envisioned by the late Rev. Emmett Jarrett, the man who launched the effort to provide an adult shelter in the city nearly a decade ago.

"We can change the world," said Rev. Jarrett. "We can throw our pebbles in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world."

For more information or to learn how to help, visit www.nlhhc.org.

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