Jeff “Weasel” Lenor, 45, gets disability payments for his left foot. Years ago, as he separated metal bed frames in his bedroom at New Haven’s Taft Apartments, the bedspring snapped back, causing a loose cinder block to drop and shatter his toe. He spent $55,000 on surgery, but the nail keeps growing wrong, Weasel says. A podiatrist says Weasel can’t use clippers; Weasel needs a saw. “It hurts and it never heals and it’s never gonna be the same,” he says, sitting legs spread in New Haven’s South Central Behavioral Health Network office.
Weasel is the first homeless man I met when I came to see Edward Mattison — the executive director of the South Central Behavioral Health Network, and the man who is (I will eventually learn) the savior of the homeless in New Haven. Weasel leaves the office and sits by a table in the waiting room, asking himself whether he should sheepishly take his sleeping bag and belongings from Mattison’s office while I am there or after I leave.
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In 2003, Weasel met Mattison through a mutual friend, Ron Reising, a former pastor of First and Summerfield United Methodist Church. Mattison and Reising had worked together at Inside at Night, a fundraising group for the city’s homeless shelters — overnight places where the homeless go during harsh winter nights.
When I ask Weasel to characterize his relationship with Mattison, he limps into Mattison’s office and whispers to him:
“He wants to know my relationship with you. Should I tell him…” The conversation lowers to murmurs.
Weasel limps out of the office and tells me that Mattison is a friend. “I’m a general nuisance to him,” Weasel added. “I want you to write that. I can be a nuisance sometimes. I’m a little overbearing.” Mattison “helps people help themselves,” Weasel says. He is sure Mattison will solve the homeless problem. But Mattison needs help. A 67-year-old man, Mattison can’t figure out the problem by himself. “He has nobly taken the cause,” Weasel says. A pause. “But he will burn himself out.”
Six-hundred-and-fifty homeless men, women, and children walk the streets on any given night in New Haven, according to the state’s annual overnight count. The number is one of the highest in Connecticut’s history. During a good financial year, the city funding for homeless support systems — the highest for a municipality in Connecticut — is ten times greater than the second-largest amount, in Hartford. And New Haven has hundreds of units of supportive housing, which require rent in order to force homeless into the workforce or leech them from disability payments. The city has more supportive housing than any other municipality in the nation.
I’ve spent the last few months exploring these houses and shelters. I’ve talked to the dispossessed at Columbus House South Central Rehabilitation Center on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, Emergency Shelter Management Services Inc. on Grand Avenue, and the Salvation Army on Crown Street — all major shelters in New Haven. One homeless woman named Latisha had smoked crack on her front porch and had been kicked out by her father. She was stranded in the streets for months before she found help. She is still homeless. Another woman, Johanna Montalvo, 35, was addicted to dope; after she returned from a tour in Iraq, her drug addiction got her kicked out of her house into a shelter. A man called I.F. smoked marijuana, lost his friends along the way, and ended up stranded on the streets for weeks. I listened to their stories; they are tragic, and they beckon listeners to help.
There are few shelters in the city — and only one overflow shelter, which is only for single men. The homeless are everywhere: on street corners, in tenements, on couches, at shelters. And the mass media sensationalize them: The homeless take, entertain, mug, live, and starve. They can’t help themselves.
And now, as the winter comes, they need the overflow shelter to help them through the night. In the 3rd Congressional District of Connecticut — where New Haven is — 2,455 people used an emergency shelter between October 2005 and September 2006, 543 of whom were children, according to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. At the same time, over 10,000 visits by the homeless were rejected. For Hartford and the 1st Congressional District, 5,662 stayed in emergency shelters, and about 14,000 visits were rejected. New Haven’s overflow shelter needs money. Otherwise, the place cannot run through all of the cold months.
The regular homeless shelters that open 365 days a year are at full capacity. Without the overflow shelter, up to 75 homeless will be stuck in the cold each night. Mattison can’t let this happen.
Mattison was born in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. His father, Harry, and mother, Lillian, owned a variety store on Liberty Avenue. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious public high school in Manhattan, and did what most kids from his neighborhood did not even consider to do: go to college. He graduated from St. John’s. In 1962, he became a Peace Corps volunteer, working in Colombia to create curbs and flood plains so that the residents would not be without homes when the rain poured. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1964 and at the same time co-founded the Dixwell Legal Rights Association, a neighborhood program that educated mothers to be better candidates for the workforce. He took a year off from the program and school to work in New York’s City Hall, where he helped turn $300 million into 600 centers for Project Summer Head Start, a program that aids underprivileged children.
A head of Inside at Night for several years, Mattison took over when Reising left the city scene due to his frequent heart attacks — he was physically unable to continue. He is the executive director of the South Central Behavioral Health Network. A part of the agency is the TAP program, which enlists case managers to go to shelters, talk to homeless there, and see if anyone wants to be placed in sober houses in order to be put on the right path. Not everyone goes to these houses, he says, because you have to “play by house rules.” No drinking, no drugs.
In his South Central office one day in October, Mattison took some phone calls and answered some e-mails, all with his back to the door. His office shares a building on Whitney Avenue, surrounded by Yale University campus grounds, with several other companies. His eldest son, Jacob, is a computer technician who works next door. His youngest son, Andrew, plays piano and teaches English at the University of Toledo in Ohio, while Benjamin, his other son, writes and edits publications for the Yale School of Management. His wife, Alice, has written award-winning books and published articles in The New Yorker and Ploughshares.
Mattison hangs up the phone; he looks at me, and he tells me that this day is typical for his schedule. I sit next to him while he busies himself under the wall-hung items from his Peace Corps days. In the far corner is a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg, a hero of sorts for Mattison. Luxemburg was a revolutionary in her time. “Everyone was stabbing everyone else in the back …. Rosa Luxemburg was able to put together a platform of things she believed in and got a lot of people to follow them.” She was later captured and killed for her leftist agenda, becoming a symbol for 20th century European Marxists.
It is October 10, and Mattison has just come from a meeting with Mayor John DeStefano Jr. DeStefano is a New Haven political powerhouse, and he has championed the Elm City Resident Card, which grants access to city services for all residents, including illegal immigrants. Mattison has asked for a challenge grant (a grant that is promised by an organization to spur the requester and other donors to raise further funds) to support the Columbus House overflow shelter, the only one of its kind in the city nowadays.
The meeting had major players: DeStefano, Mattison, city community services official Kica Matos, overflow shelter director Allison Cunningham. Mattison did not look happy. “I didn’t get a sense we were going to get a whole lot, which is unfortunate, but oh well.” Although city officials have given $66,000 to the overflow shelter and pledged to help raise up to $50,000 through two fundraising events, they aren’t providing any money from city budget general fund. The $66,000 is mandated by the federal 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the only major federal legislation in existence that responds to the homeless problem, according to many experts.
Time for a new strategy. “Life has gotten busy here,” Mattison matter-of-factly stated to me in his office. That day, the New Haven Register wrote a lead story on the homeless. The banner headline on top of the issue: “PEOPLE WILL DIE.” Mattison’s face was smiling in front: “The idea we’d have 150 men living on the streets in the dead of winter in New Haven, Connecticut, is absolutely unacceptable. It just can’t be. People will die.” Mattison later said that it took some phone calls to make the article happen. “I have an agenda, you have an agenda,” he said.
When Weasel was in high school, he wanted to become a journalist. He loved writing, and he double majored in English and journalism at the University of New Haven. He watched movies and read novels. His favorite is Scott Turow’s crime novel, Presumed Innocent. Weasel wanted to finish his college classes, but on the eighth term, the school “took money from my father and canceled some of my classes,” he said. He left and sued the school; he got his father’s money back, but he was no longer able to find a well-paying job. His father disowned him after he first tried crack. Weasel was 18 when he first entered jail; that was for only 90 days. After doing more drugs, he landed in jail again. After he left, he was forced onto the streets.
In general, the causes of homelessness are drug usage, previous conviction or recent release from prison, lack of permanent or loving relationships, inability to pay for high housing and consumption costs, un- or underemployment, chronic illness, low wages, and any combination of the mix. In New Haven, recent studies completed by Columbus House suggest that half of all city homeless do not have a job or enough income to support themselves, one-third are drug abusers, and one-sixth have family issues. Many times, an “unexpected event” will trigger a “downward spiral” toward homelessness, according to the Connecticut Reaching Home campaign, a political group that fights to end long-term homelessness. The spiral continues, and it is often difficult for a person to get out.
Weasel recently lived in a two-bedroom condo on Front Street. The electrical fire that destroyed it in July 2007 left him without his 52-inch television, he claims. He soon lived in a car in Branford; he had done so on and off for three years. He lived in attics. Buildings that had tenants. Buildings without. And buildings with raccoons. He squirts ammonia to drive them away.
Weasel has found an apartment in the city of Branford. He has a job performing clerical duties for a rabbi. But he owes money: $3,000. And he has only $2 in his wallet. (He asked me if I could buy him some food; he said he does not have a refrigerator or a microwave. I gave him $4 for ice cream. I sincerely hope he got it.) He fears that he may not stay in the home and will be forced, once again, to live on the street.
Mattison and Inside at Night have raised $160,000 so far, enough to run the emergency overflow shelter at Columbus House South Central Rehabilitation Center from November until April. The United Way and Yale-New Haven Hospital are teaming up to work on a “Shelter Now” fund. The fund needs to collect the remaining $40,000 to run the overflow shelter from mid-November to May, like in past years. As the newspapers and the media spotlight honor the big donors, the organizations have started to pool funds. By the end of October, the “Shelter Now” fund had raised $60,000. And as of November 5, the overflow shelter, on 232 Cedar Street by the city’s Yale-New Haven Hospital, is open for business.
Unfortunately, as Mattison says, groups will not make the same donations again. “You can have a crisis once — and maybe even have it twice — but you can’t have it three times.”
Mattison says his ultimate goal is to reduce the need for emergency shelters. The idea trickled down from U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Executive Director Philip Mangano’s theory that the helper must rehabilitate the toughest cases, the most chronic of the homeless. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a chronically homeless person is defined as someone who has been “continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.” By highlighting the need to help these needy, Mattison and Mangano hope that the community can help them find stability in their lives. But a long-term goal means nothing if, as Mattison puts it, the homeless die in the winter.
Mangano, who was appointed head of U.S. homeless support efforts in 2002, also created the “Housing First” model — which has chronic homeless live in affordable sober houses and receive aid in finding jobs to pay the required rent — and the idea of a ten-year plan for municipalities to work with state governments and bring homeless into support housing. The New Haven Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness started under DeStefano in the fall of 2004. Its guiding principle: “No one should be homeless.”
At the white prison-like overflow shelter, called the South Central Rehabilitation Center, workers welcome homeless men as the night goes on. The homeless leave their coats at the door and pick bunk beds for the night. In November, the workers say, only half are filled. So when will they be coming, I ask? “When it’s cold,” a worker says. “When there’s frost, they will come.”
So far, city officials and community leaders have reached out to homeless to let them know the overflow shelter is available. The city has stressed that helping the dispossessed is a community effort, one that includes social workers, city officials, and business owners.
One day, I walked down College Street and talked to the managers at the storefronts. Common among their complaints:
The Owl Shop, a cigar bar: Homeless.
Pizza Haven, a pizzeria: Those damn homeless.
Celtica, an Irish merchandise shop: Homeless, unless the owner buys them food at closing time.
The owners emphasized that if the hobos stay on the street, customers won’t come, and shop owners won’t be able to afford their rents. Someone should kick the homeless out, they said.
When I leave the South Central office that first day, Weasel volunteers to walk downtown with me. I hesitate and say I am waiting for a cab. Come on, he pleads, where do you have to go? “To Yale-New Haven Hospital.” I lie. He pleads again, and I consent.
I hold “PEOPLE WILL DIE” in my left hand. We slowly walk down Whitney Avenue as he holds his sleeping bag. “I know someone will be happy with this,” he says. He assures me that he will not be homeless any longer, that he will get out of this track of failure. I listen politely as we pass by restaurants and groceries. I notice his black t-shirt: “DiAdam & Tracey Bail Bonds: ‘You Ring, I’ll Spring.’” Looking at the logo reminds me of Robert Jacobs and his sons Philip and Paul, all bondsmen. The Jacobs family had paid a New Haven police lieutenant to have officers arrest people. They have been incarcerated and put in jail for many months. Philip and Paul came out in October. I try to distance myself from Weasel ever so slightly.
We eventually arrive at an alleyway. Let’s go through this shortcut, he says, and cut through the alleyway. I nod. We start walking. I clutch my wallet in my back pocket. We pass the halfway mark. He laughs and slows down. I slow down with him; he cannot walk behind me. We pass the alleyway, and I quietly sigh. Two women in black blouses carry sandwiches towards the alleyway; “How’d you know I was hungry?” he sleazes. They smile and walk past; I turn around and see them look at each other in confusion and disgust.
As we walk down Audubon Street, I speed up. I do not want to be there. “Wow, you walk really fast. You gotta slow down or I can’t keep up.” I slow down; I do not want to. We approach the corner; he tells me to cross the New Haven Green to get to the hospital. As cars pass by between us, I try to turn and go another direction, towards my true destination. I start to — “Not that way! Go right on the church!” I swerve towards him, nod, and smile. I creep into the New Haven Green and duck out of sight. When I can no longer feel his presence, I run and run and run towards a locked gate blocking me from my destination. I need an access card to enter. I reach into my wallet, and nothing is there. Nothing is in my wallet. Where is everything? Where is my credit card? My debit card? My money? That son of a bitch. He took it. I looked away for too long. I let my guard down.
I look into my bag. I see my cards and cash inside; I put them into my wallet. I open the gate. I enter and I feel slimy.
Mattison claims he has a life outside his work. He leaves his homeless advocacy at the South Central office and goes home to his wife. I asked him whether I could come inside his house. He refused. A public figure and his private life are separate entities. I have no right to intrude in his personal life, his home. I do not push further. He focuses on homelessness; that is all he truly wants the public to know.
He works on these issues because someone needs to help the homeless and, frankly, few others will. “I’m not a martyr, and I’m not interested in appearing to be a martyr,” he says. “I don’t spend my time in the clouds. I spend my time on what comes next. There’s no answer. There’ll never be victory. There’s no such thing as victory. Look at the people who come back from Iraq. After the Vietnam War, the shelters were filled with Vietnam vets. We gradually worked with them; some killed themselves, and some regained their lives. We got this new crew. It’s always gonna be like that.” But he adds that he has not yet failed; he always finds money and a way to keep the homeless effort afloat.
But Mattison is worried about the long term. The Inside at Night group hopes to make enough money to keep the overflow shelter open until May. For next year, however, Mattison wants the state to help with the cause. Since 1972, Connecticut has been spending between $12 and $20 a bed per night for many shelters in the state, up to 80 percent of total funds needed to run shelters in municipalities like Hartford. But in New Haven, the state government does not have to pay more than 20 percent of these necessary funds due to a state Supreme Court ruling in the 1980s.
“This is a statewide emergency,” he said. “Every place is jammed. They’re overflowed. We can’t find money … If the state doesn’t come through, all over the state, there will be repercussions. It’s not like it’s just New Haven … There’s only so many potential sources of revenue.”
So, I asked, what happens if the state government chooses not to fulfill its “responsibility”? Where will he go to get the money for next year, if the companies will not give their large donations twice and the state holds out? Who will help the homeless? (And perhaps, in my head, can you expect to receive the help you so desperately want?) He does not know, he said. For now, he has no Plan B.
During one of my conversations with Mattison, I talked about Weasel’s story. I told him about the broken toe, the jail time, the drugs, the vulnerability in Weasel’s eyes. Mattison shook it off.
Weasel is untrustworthy, he said. “The funny thing is half of what he says is a lie, and you can’t tell what half.”
But does it actually matter? Does it matter that Weasel is not telling the whole truth, if, perhaps, his life has veered off course and ended up becoming a story too horrible to be told? From his eyes, I could tell the pain and suffering were true, even if I do not trust him. It is clear from his story — and the stories of all the homeless I have talked to, no matter how true or fabricated — that once a person walks the path of homelessness (forced or by choice), they fail to get back on the right course. Often on this new path, no end is in sight, and when there is an end, it is certainly no victory. Determining how much else is true: I leave that task to you.
Weasel, like the hundreds of homeless that flock the city each night, has lost his way.
Got any money?