Homelessness is on the rise in Connecticut. Just ask Eric D'Amato, who crawled back from the bottom.
June 05, 2008
On May 22, Eric D'Amato was released from his sixth visit to the hospital in the last 13 months. A problem that began with a small blister ended with the removal of two toes, plus the ball of his foot. Forty percent of D'Amato's left foot is gone, lost to a raging staph infection.
D'Amato's story is common among diabetics who don't take care of themselves, who don't monitor their insulin properly, who continue to eat cookies and cake, because they don't care. Making matters worse, D'Amato has no feeling in his legs from his knees down because of poor circulation brought on by the diabetes.
Before his release, D'Amato talked to the Advocate about going from the working middle class to homelessness in a matter of months, and about fighting his way back to independence. His account is not unusual, say people who work with the homeless across the state. Those on the front lines say the tanking economy, punishing fuel costs and housing mortgage mess are all contributing factors.
Four years ago, D'Amato's wife, Lisa, died from breast cancer. At the time he was working as a dispatcher in the 911 center on Holcomb Street in Hartford, where he had met Lisa, who was his supervisor. It was a good job, paying about $40,000 annually. D'Amato had worked his way up from operator to acting operations supervisor during almost 10 years, beginning in 1997.
"I didn't deal with Lisa's passing correctly," said D'Amato from his bed on the fifth floor of the Conklin Building at Hartford Hospital. "I became depressed. I just let my life go to pieces in terms of my health care and things I need to do to manage my diabetes. I paid pretty much the ultimate price."
In early 2007 D'Amato lost his job, forced to resign because of his health problems. Last September, he landed in the hospital with the staph infection, and by that time the infection had also spread to his blood, leaving him feverish and with out-of-control blood sugar.
"They took one look at my foot and said, 'We have to do major surgery to save what's left,'" said D'Amato. "I ate up my short- and long-term disability. They couldn't hold my position for me any longer."
Now he was living off what little savings he had — $4,000 or $5,000 — paying his rent of $670 per month, and his $273 car payment. On a Sunday morning, his car was gone. He didn't bother calling the cops. Then his cell phone was shut off.
"It's a progression, and through it all my health was deteriorating," D'Amato said. "Do you bounce checks so you can eat? Buy insulin? What do you do?"
By the time he was released from the hospital last October after a three-week stay, D'Amato had been evicted from his apartment and all his personal belongings were gone.
"I was broke, flat broke. I had no money to put my belongings in storage." said D'Amato. "The stuff went on the street and they auctioned it off."
Now the hospital had to figure out what to do with D'Amato. Indigent, with no health insurance and no income, he couldn't simply be dropped off at the curb or left on a park bench. "They found me residence at the South Park Inn," said D'Amato. "They paid for a cab."
South Park Inn, at 75 Main St., opened in July 1984 in the former South Park Methodist Church, built in the 1870s. Assistant Director Brian Baker explains that when the church congregation was approached in 1982 about renting space to house Hartford's growing homeless population, the consensus was simply to sell the building to the city.
The congregation gave the newly formed shelter a deal on the building, and moved to a new location on Farmington Avenue.
"We thought we'd be here maybe until the year 2000 and we'd be done," said Baker.
No such luck. In fact, South Park Inn is having a banner year, as are homeless shelters across the state.
"There is a serious problem in this city, many more people are homeless than there are services to accommodate them," said South Park Executive Director John R. Ferrucci. "That continues to escalate, and frankly that's a bigger responsibility than the city of Hartford's. The state needs to be responsible too."
Not so many years ago, says Ferrucci, South Park would have 10 empty beds on any given night. Now empty beds are rare, he says. "We turn people away some days by the dozen."
An outreach team that combs the city's "old faithful spots" every Thursday morning from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. typically finds 25 to 30 homeless people "without even trying," Ferrucci said.
"It's not good when you have people living in port-a-potties in Bushnell Park, or sleeping on windowsills in City Hall or the Bushnell Park bandshell," said Ferrucci. "We've always had people outside, but it's getting worse is my point."
Ferrucci's assessment was echoed by other shelter directors and workers across the state. Carla Miklos, executive director of Operation Hope in Fairfield, said she has seen an increased volume of people coming in for a bed and a meal in the community kitchen.
"Not only are we getting more people calling saying they're homeless or in need of shelter, but also more people afraid they're going to become homeless," said Miklos. "There are a lot of people finding it difficult to deal with a house payment or utilities or fixing a car. They're having to make choices."
In Bridgeport, Pastor Terry Wilcox, executive director of the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, says the demand for his shelter's services has grown every year "but nothing like this year."
"Last year we gave away about 175,000 meals," said Wilcox, whose Mission survives entirely on private donations. "Right now we're giving out 560 meals a day. If that continues through the rest of the year we'll be over 200,000 meals."
Alison Cunningham of the Columbus House Shelter in New Haven said the winter was particularly challenging this year, so bad that a third overflow shelter for men was opened with the city's help, which only closed on April 15.
"We know from the homeless count held in January this year that numbers are up over last year," said Cunningham. "The reality is people are struggling very hard to find rent they can afford."
Thanks to a budget that has quickly flopped from a surplus to a growing deficit projected to be as much as $150 million in the coming year, homeless shelters have not seen the roughly three percent cost of living increase in funding they usually receive from the state.
Cunningham said she wants to give her employees a raise, given the state of the economy, but will have to "rely more heavily on community donors and small grants to make up for the state."
Housing advocates said they were unsuccessful in obtaining funding for 650 units of permanent supportive housing, which includes the services of case managers who help residents find employment and deal with other problems.
The Reaching Home campaign, launched in 2004, aims to build 10,000 units of supportive housing in Connecticut by 2014. It has been touted by city and state officials as the end to homelessness. Kate Kelly of Partnership for Strong Communities, said there are currently a total of 3,000 occupied units of supportive housing in the state, with another 800 in development.
"It is a tested and proven solution to the problem of homelessness for a whole lot of people," said Cunningham. "We got nothing this year and that feels like a real setback."
At South Park Inn, D'Amato was placed "upstairs" in transitional living, sharing the former chapel area divided into small cubicles with a total of 33 men who can stay there for up to two years.
"Unlike most of the folks that reside there, I never suffered from drug or alcohol addiction or mental health problems, but I have to get my life back together," said D'Amato. "The program is designed to help folks who are in a bad way but want to do the right thing."
The space is quiet on a weekday afternoon when Baker shows me around, with just one man lounging in a small lobby, watching television. Inside the eight-foot by seven-foot cubicles furnished with twin beds, some men have a computer or small TV, but others have little more than a lamp and something to read.
"The hardest thing for me in a place like this is privacy," said Baker. "It's like being in a barracks."
Still, there's always a waiting list to go "upstairs." Not that D'Amato was there much. He spent six to eight hours a day at the nearby public library, looking for a job online, sending out resumes via e-mail or snail mail.
"I struck out a lot of times interviewing, I can't tell you how many interviews I had," said D'Amato. "There comes a time in an interview situation when you talk about yourself and they find out you're homeless. The stigma of being homeless, that's the end of the story."
D'Amato was also restricted to jobs he could reach without a car, using public transportation and walking.
"There were a lot of jobs I couldn't apply for because I couldn't get to them," he said.
D'Amato began walking to the Institute of Living on Retreat Avenue, one of the first mental health centers in the U.S., founded in 1822. He took a six-week program three days a week to deal with his wife's death.
"I woke up one day and said, 'You know what, Lisa is gone and she's never going to leave my memory, but she wants you to live,'" said D'Amato, fighting tears. "I thought about the beauty she brought into my life, the little intimate things you shared as husband and wife. I told myself to keep that and move on. And that's what I did."
Last month, D'Amato had a 90-minute interview with Clinical Lab Partners in Newington, a division of Hartford Hospital, for a second-shift dispatcher job overseeing 15 to 20 drivers who collect samples from labs statewide. The job site was a 10-minute bus ride from Hartford, and a walk of less than a tenth of a mile from the bus stop to the front door.
D'Amato had mixed emotions about the interview, but he got a call back for an interview with a different person, who told him "on paper, before I even met you, I wanted you." A week later, checking his e-mail at the library, there was a message from Clinical Lab Partners. D'Amato wrote the number down on the back of his hand, and ran to the free public phone in the basement of City Hall.
He did indeed have a job offer, and for nearly $45,000. His first day was April 28.
"I got to tell you," D'Amato said, "if you have to be living in a shelter for whatever the reason, you can't go wrong with the South Park Inn. I don't say that because they fed me for six months. I say it because they treat you with dignity. They never lose respect for the fact you're only just a paycheck away from being homeless, no matter who you are."