Taking it to the Street

Hartford HealthCare Senior Communications Specialist Steve Coates spent time embedded with Rushford staff members whose jobs include documenting and helping the homeless. Here is their story:

Tim Washington couldn’t sleep.

It was the coldest night of the year, and Washington, a case manager for Rushford’s Homeless Outreach Program, had a client on his mind. The client was an older man who was living outdoors near the Meriden train tracks. Despite Tim’s urging, he refused to go to a local shelter.

“I got up at 3 a.m. and made a pot of coffee. My wife asked me what I was doing, and I said I just can’t sleep. I have to help this guy,” Washington said. Washington bundled up, grabbed his Thermos full of hot coffee, and headed to the railroad tracks, a short drive from his home. When he arrived, the man was fast asleep, bundled in layers of blankets and clothing. Washington called out the man’s name.

“He lifted his head from under the blanket and said, ‘What the heck are you doing here Tim? I’m sleeping here nice and warm. Why’d you wake me up?’” Washington laughed. “I told him that I brought him some coffee and that I’d drive him to a shelter or wherever he needed to go. He said, ‘God bless you. But I’m fine, Tim. I’m fine.’”

While this homeless man said he was fine, many in his position are not. In fact, most homeless people need some type of medical or behavioral health service, Washington said. As part of his role with the Rushford outreach team, Washington drives homeless clients to and from doctors’ appointments, to shelters or to the local food pantry — if they’re in need and willing to accept his help.

Progress, but not perfection

On any given night in Connecticut more than 3,300 people go without shelter, according to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. While that might seem like a large number, in a state as wealthy as Connecticut, it’s a 10-year low. State officials and advocates attribute the positive trend to a more coordinated effort between state, federal and local groups to identify those in need of assistance.

Through the state’s Coordinated Access Program — mandated and funded by the federal government — resources are made available for rapid rehousing, security deposits and even a few months’ rent for those who qualify. In the Meriden area, where Rushford serves as the designated Local Mental Health Authority, the Rushford Homeless Outreach team takes the lead in helping people find permanent housing and connecting them to behavioral health and addiction services as needed.

Tomeka, a Rushford client, is one of those people. She found housing, through the program after living in and out shelters for more than four years — including a stint outside on the New Haven green.

For Tomeka, the cycle of homelessness began after she lost her job in retail. She tried but couldn’t find work as she battled depression she believes was brought on by abuse and feelings of abandonment from her childhood. At an early age, she said her parents left her to live with an emotionally abusive grandmother and she practically raised her younger siblings herself.

“My family wasn’t very supportive [when I was homeless]. Once in a while they’d let me sleep on the couch or eat a hot meal. They were like ‘You can go back to the shelter. They can help you better.’ So I had to stick it out,” Tomeka said.

Building trust

Tomeka has been living in her own apartment for more than two years and comes to Rushford for services. In addition, the outreach team has connected her to resources to help her find work. While she still battles depression, she said she’s learning to trust people again thanks to the program.

“[The outreach team] helps me keep my motivation,” she said. “They help me keep a good perspective on life and the circumstances that I’ve been through. They’ve become my vital support.”

Rushford Housing/Homeless Outreach Coordinator Deanna Bencivengo said Tomeka’s self-awareness and willingness to seek help is what makes her successful.

“I remember the first day I met with Tomeka, she said to me, ‘I just want to know that you’re always going to be honest with me, that you’ll always be truthful.’ And I made her that promise,” Bencivengo said.

Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network President Rehmer agreed that gaining clients’ trust is crucial.

“The work is really to engage them — which is very, very difficult,” said Rehmer. “These are people who are usually disconnected from family and society in general. It takes a long time to build up trusting relationships.” A psychiatric nurse by trade and former commissioner of the State Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Rehmer is very familiar with their work.

“[Outreach team members] are extraordinarily special people. They are people who are willing to go under bridges and into places other people aren’t willing to go, in all kinds of weather, and engage with some of the most disenfranchised people that are out there,” Rehmer said.

  • “The work is really to engage them — which is very, very difficult. It takes a long time to build up trusting relationships.”

    - Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health President, Pat Rehmer

Going where no one else will go

On a raw, drizzly night in late January, I had the opportunity to see this special group of people in action as I accompanied Bencivengo, Rushford Housing Case Manager Stacey Bouchard and Caroline Perez from the Meriden Middlesex County-Coordinated Access Network on the annual “Point in Time count” — a mandate by the federal government to count the number of people who are without shelter.

For Rushford, it’s more than a just a head count. The outreach team uses the event to followup with existing clients and locate former clients who might be back out on the street.

“We have a good feeling of where people are or where they might be. But the reality is that this is a very transient population and it changes,” Bencivengo said as we left Rushford’s Meriden parking lot with Bouchard behind the wheel of Bencivengo’s SUV.

Our first stop that night was the Walmart Super Store in Wallingford just a few minutes from the Rushford campus. Walmart is usually accommodating to people who stay in its parking lots for extended periods, Bencivengo said.

“As long as they don’t become a nuisance, Walmart really won’t say anything. So it’s kind of become a safe place for them to park. They’re open 24 hours. They have access to a bathroom. They feel a little safer,” she said.

Almost immediately, Bencivengo and Perez spot a familiar pickup truck. They suspect it belongs to a man and woman who were successfully housed following last year’s Point in Time count.

“Darn, they’re back out,” Perez said disappointedly.

We park and the four of us approach the weathered truck, its capped-bed filled with personal belongings and trash. Bencivengo approached the passenger-side window.

“I thought you had gone to stay with friends?” she asked the couple.

“Yeah, we did. It didn’t work out,” said the woman.

“We need to get you back on the list. You guys should be eligible for housing at this point. So we want to make you active again and get you working with us again,” said Bencivengo.

Bencivengo gave them her business card and a knapsack filled with personal hygiene items and blankets. Perez used an app on her phone to record some personal information and enter them into the database.

As we drove away from Walmart, Bencivengo said she’s hopeful she’ll hear from the couple.

“They’re both pretty vulnerable. They both have medical issues. The female has some psychiatric issues. I’m pretty sure that the male has some substance abuse and alcohol issues. So we’d like to get them stabilized,” she said.

Rushford to the rescue

Next, we take a short drive and park on a deserted Meriden street sandwiched between affordable housing complexes.

We walk down a wet, rocky path to an abandoned factory. The glass in the long windows has been knocked out. And, the combination of fog, drizzle and dull orange light from the street lamps make it seem like a set from a B-horror movie.

The women were unfazed. They’ve heard people have been living here. Armed with only pocket flashlights and their Rushford identification badges, they step over broken glass and garbage to enter the building.

“We’re here from Rushford. Do you need any help?” Bencivengo called out several times, her voice echoing against the remnants of the day’s rain eerily dripping off the steel girders.

This time, we didn’t find anyone. Because of the isolated spot and the “general creepiness” of the building, she said it’s a perfect spot for a homeless person to take up shelter and go undetected.

During the next three hours, we searched a commuter parking lot, an abandoned parking garage and several lightly wooded areas where the team suspected people might be living unsheltered.

We also found an empty encampment that they’d all heard about but had never seen, adjacent to a liquor store and
old town grange in the downtown area.

Before the night ended, we stopped by a downtown fire station because Bencivengo had heard that a one-time Rushford supportive housing client with severe alcoholism was living outside close by. She learned from firefighters that the man had recently been transported to MidState Medical Center for a minor ailment.

“He’s known to sleep out back of the fire station, and at this point we’re just trying to keep enough eyes on him so he doesn’t freeze to death, and hopefully try to engage him back into services,” she said.

As we pulled into the Rushford parking lot a little after 11 p.m., Bencivengo judged the night a success.

“We did find that couple and that their resolution to their homelessness didn’t work out. They probably were not people who were going to seek us back out. So I’m glad that we did see them and we can work with them,” she said.

Emotionally draining, but rewarding work

Armed with new information and being reconnected with past clients, Bencivengo’s team vowed to get to work. Washington would visit the new encampments again, trying to connect with the people who live there and build the trusting rapport he’s been known for through his years working at Rushford.

“I’ve been here 13 years and I love my job. It’s very tough sometimes because I’m such a giving person or try to be such a giving person. My boss tells me I can’t fix everyone. But I try to,” said Washington.

Washington said it can be frustrating and emotionally draining when clients don’t want his help or he finds they’re back on the street.

But the rewards of his work are immeasurable. Washington reflected on one recent success story — a woman who had been homeless for more than five years and found an apartment through Rushford and coordinated access.

“We brought her to the apartment. She looked around. It was clean. It was beautiful,” Washington recalled. “And she said ‘This is mine?’ And I said ‘Yes this is yours’ and I handed her the keys. She started crying right then and there. She couldn’t believe it was hers.”