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Drowning In Poverty Closer To Home

COMMENTARY by Helen Ubiñas
September 8, 2005

Willie Robinson helped unload boxes of everything imaginable from cars that lined up at the state Armory: water, diapers, clothes, a big stuffed bunny.

He was there Tuesday with co-workers, but there was a time Robinson could have used a little help himself. It's been five years since he was homeless, he told me. Long enough to put it behind him, but not so long that he can't remember wondering where his next meal was coming from. Where he'd sleep at night. If he'd ever be able to get back on his feet.

If the early pictures coming out of the crisis in New Orleans showed the incredible divide between the have and have-nots, the pictures from Connecticut and elsewhere in the nation now show what happens when the people of this country rally.

Locally, New Haven is making plans to house a few hundred people. A West Hartford councilwoman plans to introduce a resolution to house displaced people in town. Kids all over the state are raising cash selling everything from lemonade to cupcakes.

And over at the Armory, they can't empty the cars fast enough with all the donations pouring in.

"This is amazing," Robinson says, hurrying to unload apeople see homelessness in their neighborhood the same way they do in some place far awaynother car.

He was right. It was a wonderfully overwhelming display of generosity. It was also proof positive that our ability to come to the aid of folks thousands of miles away is matched only by our ability to avert our eyes from what's right in front of us.

Watching the donations and volunteers pour into the Armory, I couldn't help but wonder: What if we put forth this kind of effort to feed and house the homeless and less fortunate right here? Would 32,000 people in the state - 40 percent of them children - face homelessness every year? Would 600 households in the Capitol Region find themselves facing life without a roof over their head? Would we need to commission a group to come up with plan to end homelessness by 2015?

Robinson smiled, "When you look at it that way, I guess not. But I don't think ."

So instead of using the tragedy in New Orleans to prompt a conversation about the vulnerable in our own state, we have Gov. M. Jodi Rell heading a hurricane drill, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez inviting reporters to a briefing on the city's flood control system and HUD officials calling around Connecticut looking for shelter beds for Katrina evacuees.

"They didn't seem to realize how full the shelters are already and how people are being turned away from shelters in Connecticut every day," said Janice Elliott, director of the Connecticut chapter of the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Diane Randall, at the Partnership for Strong Communities, said as hokey as it might sound, it's not a matter of opening our homes, colleges or public housing. It's about opening our hearts - or perhaps more accurately, our eyes - to the precarious situation of the vulnerable all around us.

For some reason, we have trouble doing that. It's easier to drop off a check, a case of water or a few bags of diapers for the victims in New Orleans and feel like we did our part. Easier to avert our eyes when the calamity is just the daily drip, drip, drip of poverty all around us.

Easier to look at the people in New Orleans and think, they are the truly unfortunate ones, the victims of an act of God. It's not their fault. Folks aren't so sure about that when it comes to the poor nearer to home.

"Unfortunately, people view the needy as deserving and undeserving," said Elliott.

If that's the case, then it's time we get familiar with some numbers. Of the 688 occupations tracked by the state Department of Labor, 324 don't pay a median wage high enough for a worker to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment without spending more than 30 percent of his income. The number of Connecticut families living in poverty swelled by 11 percent in the past two years, compared with 2 percent nationwide. Those without medical insurance in the state grew by 5 percent, compared with a 2 percent rise nationally.

Translation: There are good, hard-working people just trying to keep their heads above water.

And maybe we should help them before they're floating past us.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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