Hunger, homelessness, and efforts to ease these problems were the focus of a community gathering and dinner on campus Tuesday, February 5, hosted by the Norton Family Center for the Common Good and Loomis Chaffee's Community Service Program.
Nearly 50 people, including students, faculty, members of the Windsor Hunger Action Team (HAT), and representatives from Hands on Hartford's "Faces of Homelessness" speakers' bureau, attended the event to promote education, understanding, advocacy, and involvement in finding solutions to hunger and homelessness in our communities.
Before the attendees shared a meal in the Scanlan Campus Center, Susan Raggo, Windsor social services coordinator and a member of the Windsor HAT, gave an overview of the organization's objectives and the work it does in the community. Made up of individuals from service organizations, businesses, local government, schools, religious organizations, and concerned members of the community, the Windsor HAT partners with Foodshare, a regional food bank and anti-hunger advocacy organization, to educate the community about the causes of hunger and to help individuals and families obtain nutritious food and maintain food security.
Students and other members of the Loomis community have participated in the Windsor HAT's programs, including the Weekend Wheels Backpack Program and the Summer Meals Program, both of which help provide nutritious food for at-risk families with school children. Heather Henderson, Loomis' director of Community Service Programs, is an active member of the Windsor HAT.
Following dinner, Anne Goshdigian, co-coordinator of Hands on Hartford's Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau program, shared her personal journey. When she was in her early 60s, after having provided for herself and her family for most of her adult life, she found herself unexpectedly homeless after job losses. The No. 1 reason for homelessness is not addiction and mental illness, according to Ms. Goshdigian; it's the lack of living-wage jobs and affordable housing.
While addiction and mental illness are certainly factors, she said, other reasons for homelessness include domestic violence, illness, physical injuries, medical expenses, and post-traumatic stress disorders from military service or other circumstances. Very often, it is a combination of these factors. Single women with children, seniors on a fixed income, and LGTBQ teenagers are especially vulnerable, Ms. Goshdigian said.
"Hunger is unacceptable in a country as rich as ours, ... and the fact that 40 percent of homeless veterans are from the Vietnam era — making them in their 60s and 70s now — is a national disgrace," she said.
Ms. Goshdigian introduced three local individuals who each shared their personal and moving stories of experiencing homelessness.
Jacob, from a well-off family in Southington, explained how untreated depression and anxiety led to his addiction problems. The cycles of addiction, recovery, and relapse led to his living for several years in the woods and on the street. His long and arduous return to normalcy began when Jim Barrett, an officer of the Hartford Police and a homeless advocate, approached him as he was sleeping under a bridge and offered him food and warm clothes. After establishing a relationship with Jacob, Officer Barrett helped him to seek treatment for his mental health issues, and Jacob said he continues to make progress and now lives in an apartment.
Andrea, an immigrant from Jamaica, is a mother of three children ages 13, 11, and 9, who is homeless due to a job loss and divorce. She had been homeless once previously, and she shared her frustration at the bureaucratic shuffle that has moved her and her children to various shelters and temporary residences. Andrea spoke of the shame she feels in being unable to provide a secure home for her children — a shame so great that she doesn't speak of it with her family. She also shared challenges she faces in trying to meet the needs of her children's mental and physical health issues, and in holding the family together without the emotional security of a warm, safe, reliable home.
Ralph, who is originally from South Windsor, shared that he enjoyed a happy childhood and didn't have to work too hard to get good grades in school, but he didn't have the motivation to work to his potential in middle and high school and never sought to pursue higher education. He began working in an auto body shop and later transitioned to other businesses within the auto repair industry, eventually owning his own successful auto repair businesses and employing several people. Ralph said he ended up addicted to pain medication after an auto accident and lost everything in pursuit of fueling his addiction. He ended up a heroin user, was homeless for 10 years, and eventually landed in jail for petty crimes. According to Ralph, prison saved him, and he found the motivation he'd never had as a young person to kick his addition and reclaim a life for himself — and for his daughter — with the help of Hands on Hartford and other community organizations. A few credits away from earning his bachelor's degree in human science from Goodwin University, Ralph proudly told the crowd that he would like to pursue a law degree next in order to help others who have found themselves in situations like his own.
Ms. Goshdigian closed the evening's presentation with an appeal for people not to "look away" when they see homeless people, rather to look them in the eye and acknowledge them, because doing so affirms their humanity.
Freshman Viraj Dcuna is leading a project to collect donations for winter kits — packages of warm accessories and comfort items — to distribute to homeless people in Hartford and Windsor during the cold weather of winter. Anyone wishing to contribute to the kits should contact Heather Henderson.