Homeless In A Pandemic

Matt O'Toole on Easter morning with all his possessions.

Story and Photographs by John Murray

   Matt O’Toole sat outside the largest homeless shelter in Connecticut wondering how he was going to spend the next 10 hours. It was Easter Sunday and it was cold and raw outside. The St. Vincent DePaul Shelter in the South End of Waterbury boots all single men out of the facility every morning at 7 am, and O’Toole couldn’t get back in until 5 pm.

   O’Toole has been homeless off and on for much of the past year. “I made bad decisions,” O’Toole said. “Most of us in here have made a lot of bad decisions. I had an addiction problem.”

   Being homeless is a challenge on the best of days, but during the COVID-19 pandemic it was a nightmare for O’Toole and the 17 other shelter residents milling around Benedict Street. The Silas Bronson Library was closed during the crisis, downtown was a ghost town as all non-essential businesses were ordered shut, and the homeless hospitality center on East Main Street had been on a roller coaster since a fire tore through the facility in February.

   “We have nowhere to go to get warm or have a cup of coffee,” O’Toole said. “Yesterday I went into Home Depot and sat on a toilet for two hours to warm up.”

Despite the Governor's orders for the public to stay inside, the shelter pushes single men out onto the streets for ten hours every day.

   During a pandemic when Governor Ned Lamont was imploring Connecticut residents to stay at home, every morning some of the most vulnerable residents in Waterbury were being sent out onto the streets with nowhere to go, and nothing to do.

   How can you stay at home during the COVID-19 crisis if you’re homeless? And if you were living in a homeless shelter in mid-March it was impossible to practice safe social distancing.

   Recognizing the problem, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont issued an executive order for homeless shelters to decompress their facilities, and has provided temporary housing for a portion of the homeless population in hotels (75% repayable by the Federal government).

   So how is that playing out here in Waterbury? The St. Vincent DePaul Shelter has decompressed to 50% capacity by sending 80 people to the Courtyard By Marriott, but the men still in the shelter are pushed out on the streets every day.

   The Waterbury Observer contacted Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary about the situation in early April and he touted the new Center For Human Development on East Main Street as a place for the homeless to go during the day.

   A fire had ripped through the old center at 693 East Main Street on Feb. 21, destroying it.

   “ I was standing in the middle of the street watching the fire with Ralph Monti,” Mayor O’Leary said. “Ralph owned a building directly across the street and said we could set up a new center for the homeless there.”

   And by March 2nd the center was up and running at 690 East Main Street. When the pandemic hit, however, the new hospitality center was forced to close due to a lack of personal protection equipment, and social distancing issues.

Fire destroyed the hospitality center at 693 East Main Street, and a new center has opened directly across the street.

   “We tried limiting the number of people inside the center and gave everyone one hour,” CHD program director Belinda Arce-Lopez said, “but when the hour was up, they didn’t want to leave. It was a struggle, so we closed.”

   When O’Leary learned that the new center had closed, he ordered a massive heated tent erected behind the center to house the homeless population as they waited to enter the center, which re-opened April 13th, the day after Easter.

Mayor O'Leary ordered a heated tent installed outside the hospitality center.

   Crisis management is a critical skill for any public official during the pandemic. Thousands of businesses have shut in Waterbury, the schools are closed, residents have been ordered to stay inside their homes unless they work at an essential business, are grocery shopping, getting gas or picking up medicine or take-out. Tremors have rippled through building blocks of society. While each executive order from Governor Lamont addresses a major issue, smaller ones pop up with holes to plug, and dots to connect. Problem solving during the crisis is unending.

   “We’ve never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes,” O’Leary said. “”I go to bed every night wondering if I’ve done enough, and I wake up every morning wondering what’s next?”

   Even with a substantial part of the local homeless population situated inside the Courtyard By Marriott, issues erupted. One person tested COVID-19 positive, another was kicked out of the hotel for not showering and ended up sleeping in Rivera-Hughes Park for several nights with temperatures dropping into the 30s. And what were they going to eat, and who was going to pay for it?

   Jered Bruzas is the director at the St. Vincent DePaul shelter said the Northwest Coordinated Access Network that includes his shelter, The Salvation Army Family Shelter, Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury, Fish of Torrington and the Winchester Emergency Shelter “worked with the state and were given access to a hotel downtown.”

   A COVID-19 Response Fund established by the United Way of Greater Waterbury and the Connecticut Community Foundation have provided grants for food and cleaning supplies. San Marino Restaurant provides dinner for homeless clients staying in the hotel.

   Even with a bounty of help there were problems inside the hotel Easter Day as many of the residents were openly complaining they were not getting enough food to eat. The Waterbury Observer witnessed this first hand when we shadowed Joseph Ochieng on Easter afternoon when he delivered hundreds of sandwiches to the hotel. The food was donated by the LaBonne Family  (who operate LaBonne’s Market in Waterbury), and delivered by Ochieng who runs a homeless outreach program called, God Provides Ministry. Despite getting breakfast, lunch and dinner, the residents were clearly hungry and exceedingly thankful to Ochieng as he offered sandwiches, water, and brownies.

Chris Bachard from the Center of Human Development helped Joseph distribute the food door by door inside the Marriott. The Center For Human Development is working closely with the homeless clients being sheltered at the Marriott during the pandemic.

Joseph Ochieng was born and raised in Kisumu, Kenya. He works in the emergency room at Waterbury Hospital at night, and is the founder and president of God Provides Ministries during the day, working tirelessly to help the homeless population in Waterbury.

Chris Bachard and Joseph Ochieng brought the sandwiches, brownies and water door to door to the clients inside the hotel on Easter Sunday.

   Something was off, and State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr. worked the phones the next few days to help problem solve. “People inside the hotel felt like they were on an island,” Reyes said. “They were wondering where the cavalry was.”

   Reyes facilitated to get Staywell Health Center, the Homeless Project and the State of Connecticut involved. “The dots don’t always connect,” Reyes said. “We’re in a huge crisis and we’re all trying to problem solve this together. No one was ready for this.”

   The hospitality center is reopened, more food and services are being delivered to the Courtyard By Marriott, holes have been plugged and dots connected. Now Jered Bruzas can get back to the homeless work he was focused on before the pandemic upended society.

   “The hotel is a short-term solution,” Bruzas said. “We are still working to help the homeless overcome their housing crisis and there is a team of providers meeting weekly to discuss solutions that include arrangements with landlords and finding furniture so people can be housed.”

   Bruzas also credits Elara VNA Healthcare Services for providing services at the hotel and said, "the City of Waterbury has made sure we have enough PPE to protect dedicated providers. The community has really stepped up to the plate providing so many volunteers who make sure that everyone has access to much needed services."

   Matt O’Toole, the homeless man interviewed Easter morning outside the shelter, was grateful when he learned the hospitality center would be opened the next day. “We have no place to go,” O’Toole said. “Yesterday it was cold and windy (40 mph) and I laid down in Library Park and tried to survive until the shelter opened back up.”

   The following day, Monday, April 14th, the sky cracked open and for ten hours the wind and rain hammered down on Waterbury. But on that day, Matt O’Toole and dozens of homeless people from the shelter and the woods and from beneath the underpasses had a warm place to go. Dots had been connected, and the homeless hospitality center was back open and tending to the needs of the most vulnerable among us.