The Hartford Homeless Outreach Team leaves at 6 a.m. every Thursday, from South Park Inn, a homeless shelter downtown.
Yesterday, the team was Dave and Tony, two guys who obviously love what they do and who love one other, though when I suggest that, the vulgar (and funny) jokes came flying at me sitting there in the backseat.
That’s OK. I’ve got Dave and Tony pegged. They’re two big-hearted guys who somehow manage to cover that up with a pretend shell of world-weariness. They’ve certainly seen enough to make them world weary, yet here they are again, handing out bagged lunches, socks, and conversation to a part of the population you might just walk right by. To the untrained eye, the chronic homeless may look like nothing more than a pile of quilts scattered on a bench. They are gone by the time most people go to work, circulating like ghosts among the rest of us. They’re invisible because that’s how everyone wants it — both the chronic homeless, and us. If the police find them, they will roust them, so they keep moving and come back to settle in only after things get quiet at night.
Life doesn’t have to be this way. The team is offering rides to a shelter, though every shelter in Hartford is full. Somehow, they’ll find a spot if one of these folks will just come inside.
The team knows the spots people flop — under a bridge, squirreled into a corner of a church step, nestled behind busted-down boxes. We find one guy near a dumpster shooting up. Keep driving, Dave says, we don’t want to interrupt him, and just to mess with Dave, Tony slows down.
They hand a lunch bag to an old man, who opens the bag immediately and begins eating. There must be street protocol for this. Though some of these people haven’t eaten in a day or more, most wait until the van is pulling away to open their lunches. Not this guy. When Tony sees him quickly chewing, he hands him another bag.
Dave bumps fists with One-Eyed Carl, a guy who can be the sweetest thing going, or a really scary dude.Today, he is sweet, and earnestly tells Dave about a job he has working construction.
See that guy? Tony asks, and he nods to a youngish man with wild hair, walking down the street having a conversation with himself. He sees us and is talking to us, but we’re not in the conversation yet, Tony explains.
You can come inside, Tony says. We can find you a bed, says Dave. The people may want to come in, but all decline. These are the hard-cores, the people who will stay outside even on the worst winter nights. They’re outside because they don’t trust the shelters. They’re outside because they can’t use if they come in. They’re outside because the voices in their heads tell them to stay outside. They’ve blown through families, friends, and acquaintances, and sometimes, shelter workers, too. One guy looked like he was going to get into supportive housing, but then he masturbated in the lobby of a shelter, so it was goodbye, opportunity, and he was back to his place leaning against a band stand.
Who does that kind of thing? Someone with some pretty significant mental health issues.
The team finds mostly men, but they recently found a pregnant woman out on Hartford’s streets. She insists she’s only 3 months along, and she insists that she’s not using. Neither of those statements is correct, and still Tony and Dave treat her with dignity, encourage her to come in, maybe get some prenatal care.
Imagine a 5-year old looking at his mom saying with all seriousness, “I want to grow up and live on the streets of Hartford, Conn.” That doesn’t happen, and you can feel your heart break as you push through tall weeds to carry yet another lunch — sandwich, fruit, snack, juice, and water — under yet another bridge. And standing there, like a specter, is a tall, gaunt man who gravely takes the bag you offer, and says quietly, “God bless you.” What do you say back to that? “You, too?” Living here under a bridge? God bless you? And find you a home?