FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn.— With the onset of winter and subfreezing temperatures, the Norwalk Open Door Homeless Shelter’s 96 beds for men, women and families are filled every night.
People line up for the center’s free breakfasts, lunches and dinners — meals that are served every day of the year. But some homeless people say that when the shelter is full, they have to take extreme measures to survive.
“Tonight it’s going to be brutally cold, so this place will be full and I’ll have to get really drunk to get a bed at the hospital,” 45-year-old Mark O’Neal said while munching on a hot dog with sauerkraut and mustard at the shelter’s free lunch program, the smell of alcohol already on his breath.
“I’m not going to freeze to death out there like some guys I used to know,” said O’Neal.“I can sleep on a park bench when the weather’s good, but I ain’t going to die out there in the cold. If there are no beds here, I got to get myself admitted to the hospital. Only way to do that is to get good and drunk.”
But Bill Okwuosa, the shelter’s executive director, says nobody is turned out onto the streets on cold winter nights.
“If we are full, we find someplace for everyone to sleep,” said Okwuosa. He has been credited with turning the shelter from a flophouse for vagrants into a center with 12-step programs, counseling and work programs to help homeless people – many of whom are professionals — who want to transition into the job market.
Studies show that homeless adults statewide are well-educated – 71 percent have a high school education or higher and more than a quarter of those reported further education in technical, college or graduate schools. But a “lack of affordable housing is the primary cause of homelessness," said Rafael Pagan Jr., executive director of the Shelter for the Homeless in Stamford.
“In the Stamford-to-Norwalk metropolitan region, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is more than $1,800. To afford this level of rent and utilities, a household must earn $34.83 hourly or $72,440 annually. For a minimum-wage worker earning $8.25 hourly, this would require 24 hours of work, 7 days a week for 52 weeks.”
Carla Miklos, executive director of Operation Hope in Fairfield, agreed that the rising homeless population in Fairfield County is directly linked to the recession and soaring housing costs.
“Homelessness is not an issue that only impacts low-income areas anymore,” said Miklos, who for four years has headed the Fairfield shelter, which provides 18 beds for men and six for women as well as three family units and serves daily meals for a growing number of people.
“Our shelter has been trying to tackle this issue for 25 years. And while I think we’ve made a lot of progress helping the homeless find places to live, the challenges we are now facing with the high cost of living has created a new flow of people falling into the needy category,” said Miklos.
“We get the usual people who struggle with drugs, drinking and mental illness, to the other end of the spectrum that includes people trying to work hard and make a living who still can’t afford to live in Fairfield County,” she said.
Miklos said the shelter serves 105,000 meals a year to more than 470 Fairfield families through its food pantry and 32,000 meals through the community kitchen.
“Since the economy has taken such a major dip, there are definitely more people who don’t necessarily fit the definition of 'chronically' homeless, people who may be dealing with this situation for the first time,” she said.
For those who have lived a more transient lifestyle or have had to deal with issues such as addiction, incarceration and mental illness, "times like these create an environment where making a change is even harder,” Miklos said.“And it gets even more complicated when jobs are scarce, rents are out of reach and a general sense of despair is the reality for more people.”