Seeking out those others try to avoid

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No caption. Photo by Emily Foxhall.

Rain fell gently on the windshield of Ron Dunhill’s van early Friday morning as he pulled up to the liquor store on Grand Avenue, known for buying back returned cans and bottles. Looking out the window, he spotted a familiar face: a tall man slowly pushed an empty green Shaw’s shopping cart, with a black golf hat covering his eyes.

The man’s leather jacket was soaked from the rain, and his black ski gloves were drenched and useless. He greeted Dunhill and asked for a pair of socks. After handing over a crisp white roll of socks, Dunhill asked him how he’d been doing.

Staring at his feet, the man said in a raspy voice that his friend had been admitted to the hospital. Dunhill nodded, then went next door to buy a cup of coffee.

Dunhill handed over the steaming Styrofoam cup and then pulled out his pack of cigarettes, offering one to the man. He took the cigarette, thanked Dunhill, and slowly pushed his cart into the rain.

Dunhill returned to his van, pulled out a chart with a list of names, and checked him off the list.

* * *

For the past 10 years, Dunhill has been searching for the people most of society is trying to avoid. A nurse employed by the Hill Health Center since 2000, he is part of an outreach team whose job is to form relationships with the homeless, many of whom suffer from mental illness or substance abuse problems. Dunhill gets to know them on a personal level, offering friendship while also pushing them to find treatment and housing, although he refers to them as his “clients.” Dunhill’s list contains about 150 names, allowing him to keep track of them all and check in on them regularly.

“A lot of these people are so broken, they literally don’t believe they deserve anything other than what they have at this point, which is nothing,” he said. “They really, truly believe it.”

Dunhill’s job is to convince them how to do otherwise. He was homeless, too, once — for a short period while living in Denver. But he doesn’t tell his clients that, because he does not want them to see him as the example of someone who overcame homelessness; he wants them to realize on their own that they have the ability to rise out of their situation.

“I’d much rather have people see me as the professional that I try to be, rather than use my past to try to coerce them into doing what I want,” he said.

More than 700 people have been homeless for at least one night in New Haven last year, according to the Web site of Columbus House, the Connecticut nonprofit that oversees Dunhill’s volunteer work and aims to end homelessness. Whether sleeping in a dumpster, under a bridge, in a tent or in a shack, a significant portion of the homeless of New Haven has learned to live permanently on the streets.

* * *

Dunhill moved to New Haven from his native Colorado, where he was working as a nurse in Denver. Upon arriving in the Elm City, he began working in a psychiatric unit, but in 2000 he instead began working with children in the mental health center of the Hill Health Center, a community health organization with eight branches in the greater New Haven area. Soon after, he realized that working with children was not his “forte.” He asked if he could move to another position and was referred to the homeless program.

“I really had no idea what that was,” he said.

Dunhill enjoys his work, and said he even has a knack for it, noting that his background hunting and fishing in Colorado helped him find the homeless people with whom he works.

“I try to look for trails, signs of possible entry, just little things,” he said. “There, you look for spots that people might sleep in, they call them camps. You’re always trying to look in the little nooks and crannies to see if someone might be living there.”

Dunhill begins his work week on Monday mornings, setting out two hours earlier than required. He said he does this because, inevitably, something has happened to one of his clients over the weekend, and he will want to meet with them. Whether stopping by a hospital or searching for them elsewhere, his “clients’” problems become his own.

“I’m always trying to put out the fires,” he said.

Then he is on the clock, and the rest of his day usually consists of formal outreach in which he follows his established route. A program that began in the mid 1990s as a research collaborative with Yale, the Columbus House outreach has morphed into a combined effort including other organizations such as Hill Health Center, Columbus House executive director Alison Cunningham said. She explained that Dunhill’s job is essential in building trust with the homeless.

Dunhill said this development of trust can take years, but it begins with just a handshake.

“They may be incredibly dirty, and smelly and haven’t had a shower in eight months,” Dunhill said. “I don’t care, you know. I can wash my hand, that’s no big deal. I’d rather let them know that somebody really cares.”

* * *

Last Friday, Dunhill was joined by Megan Melamed, an employee at Columbus House. Their first stop was Union Station. Walking through the airy lobby with listless morning stragglers, they spotted people they recognized sitting on the lobby benches without striking up conversation. Making sure to check even the bathrooms before leaving, they took a lap around the front of the building, then getting back in Dunhill’s van to visit the remaining sites.

The two took the van along a road and under a bridge, pulling over to the shoulder of the road strewn with plastic crates and discarded bottles. Dunhill stepped out of the car, yelling out the client’s name to get his attention.

“Are you alright?”

An arm appeared from under a pile of yellow and brown blankets. Then a thumbs-up sign. Returning to the car, Dunhill said if the client hadn’t responded, he would have woken him up to make sure he was still alive.

The team then proceeded to a soup kitchen to talk with clients and finally headed back to the Columbus House office.

Dunhill said the ultimate goal of this work is to move his clients to housing so they can get their lives back. Though he admitted that he sometimes cannot even get a real name from them (one man he works with operates solely under the street name “Smurf”), Dunhill claims this lack of trust has never bothered him.

“I’m not going to say ‘I’m not your friend, but I’m your nurse. This is a professional relationship.’ ” he said. “I’m always professional in what I do in order to be that role model they expect.”

* * *

On some days, Dunhill will have scheduled appointments with his clients. One of them, a man Dunhill called “Frenchie” who had been homeless for 30 years, finally gave in to Dunhill’s prodding and applied for housing. When Dunhill reported that the man had been offered an apartment, the man was extremely disbelieving, thinking that at some point in the process of signing the lease and moving, something would fall through.

But everything held together until Dunhill took the man to his apartment and gave him his key. Frenchie started crying. “I don’t deserve this,” he wept.

Dunhill was finally able to convince Frenchie to stay, telling Frenchie that he would be taking care of Dunhill’s apartment for him. Dunhill then began teaching Frenchie to take care of himself, including showering, brushing his teeth, doing dishes, and keeping the apartment clean. The pair met on a weekly basis to do laundry. Dunhill would arrive and help him put his laundry in the washer, playing the card game cribbage while they waited.

After a few months, though, when Dunhill would arrive at the apartment, the cribbage board would be ready, the laundry would already be in the washer, and Frenchie would ask him for something to eat.

But there were also the times when he would arrive to find the apartment vacant. On one such occasion, Frenchie went missing for three months. They finally found Frenchie, but though he agreed to come back to his apartment, he died shortly thereafter from complications due to his alcoholism.

“We get so involved with our clients, we experience the good times and bad times,” Dunhill said. “Whichever way it goes, we need to be there to pick up the pieces. And when they pass away, we feel that. It’s not just something that happened. You feel it. And it’s just something we have to deal with.”

Remembering this story brought tears to Dunhill’s eyes.

“[My job is] about being a pitbull and not giving up. You know you can’t give up on them because that’s what everybody else does. It’s our job to show them that there are people out here who truly care, and we won’t give up on them. … Any one of us could be homeless in a heartbeat.”

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