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Agencies join hands to help transform the lives of homeless women

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published July 17. 2011 4:00AM   Updated July 19. 2011 4:26AM
Abigail Pheiffer/The Day
Eva Vega, right, the Hispanic outreach coordinator and a case manager for Bethsaida Community’s Homeless Women Deserve Treatment, translates instructions and information to Angelica Lebron, center, of New London, as Lebron undergoes an ultrasound at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London. Rachel Stackowitz, left, an ultrasound sonographer, completes the procedure.

Homelessness in southeastern Connecticut evokes many images. Men seated on downtown steps looking bored or tired or drunk. Women rummaging through garbage cans for 5-cent returnables. Maybe teenagers hanging out looking for something to do.

But the issue is more complicated than stereotypes or statistics. And it's as three-dimensional as the people you might walk or drive past every day. It could be a former neighbor who lost a job or got sick and used up savings. It could be your aunt or brother who used up family goodwill.

New London County's urban centers grapple with homelessness issues daily, as officials worry about the burden on budgets and the perception of public safety or downtown appeal.

A new program that combines the forces of nine small agencies in southeastern Connecticut is attacking these problems.

In a two-day series, The Day tells the stories of two clients of the program and their caseworkers.

The effort started with a private, nonprofit agency dedicated to helping women climb out of homelessness and crisis, Norwich-based Bethsaida Community Inc. The 24-year-old agency runs the eight-bed Katie Blair House, a supportive housing program for homeless women, and the four-unit Flora O'Neil Apartments, both in Norwich.

"Bethsaida is the town in Galilee where Jesus fed 5,000 people. Bethsaida is the place where persons in need came together in search of healing," the group explains on its website.

In the spring of 2010, Bethsaida Executive Director Claire Silva pursued an ambitious grant from an obscure federal agency - the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration. Her goal was to create a program to serve homeless people with substance and/or mental illness disorders.

Silva rallied support from eight partner agencies and developed the "Homeless Women Deserve Treatment" proposal. The goal was to serve 545 homeless women over five years by reaching them where they live - in shelters, under bridges, in battered women's centers or on friends' couches.

Silva knew the women were out there. Each year, the Katie Blair House alone is forced to turn away dozens of women or to place them on a waiting list. On Jan. 28, 2009, the evening of the annual Point In Time homeless count, 94 women were in the region's shelters.

The federal agency announced last October that $40 million in grants would be funneled to 23 cities, including New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas - and Norwich.

Why Norwich? The application showed the long-standing cooperation among the nine agencies had borne fruit over the years and could be a model for other programs, Silva said.

Beginning this year, Bethsaida is receiving $350,000 every year for five years. Its arsenal includes counseling and help in finding and keeping housing and jobs. Just as important, it also covers bus tickets, trips to grocery stores and everyday intangibles from encouraging phone calls to the squeeze of a hand during a medical exam.

Confronting trauma

As of last week, 214 women had been referred to Homeless Women Deserve Treatment, and 129 are active clients. The women range in age from 18 to their 60s, with most between 21 and 50. Most (66) are white and African American (25).

Women referred to the program are screened for substance abuse, mental illness and HIV/AIDS. The initial screenings revealed that 113 had mental health issues, 63 had substance abuse problems and 57 had both.

"Eighty percent of our women had abuse of some sort as children," Silva said. "Many suffered from sexual abuse. We recognize that trauma and the move to self-medicate."

Soon after the program began in January, the five caseworkers and program managers - some of whom have overcome their own past addictions and abuses - were taking women from homeless shelters and getting them into treatment, counseling and sometimes apartments. They've helped women get jobs. They've taken them to doctors' offices to treat everything from drug addiction to rotted teeth. They have carried furniture and groceries, laughed and wept.

"I enjoy what I do," program coordinator Donie Jarmon said. "I hope by the end of my day, I have made a change in somebody's life."

c.bessette@theday.com

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Nine partners, one goal

The partner agencies of Homeless Women Deserve Treatment:

Bethsaida Community Inc.
United Community and Family Services
The Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut
New London Homeless Hospitality Center
Norwich Community Care Team
Mystic Area Shelter and Hospitality
Thames Valley Council for Community Action
Covenant Shelter
St. Vincent de Paul Place

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