Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

As we celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the Archdiocese, we look back… on July 16, 1978 when the first Mass was held at St. Monica Church, Northford.
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ics-028_feb11Juan Gerena stands in the doorway to Casa de Francisco. (Photo submitted)

HARTFORD – Juan Gerena watched quietly as some 100 invited guests mingled Nov. 17 to celebrate the opening of Casa de Francisco, a subsidized, 50-unit apartment building on Hungerford Street that is a mission of Immaculate Conception Shelter and Housing Corporation (ICSHC).

Mr. Gerena wasn’t mingling much. Mr. Gerena is homeless. He lives in a shelter across the street, in the basement of the former Immaculate Conception Church on Park Street, where every night in the fall and winter he and about 60 other men come in from the cold. Immaculate Conception Shelter is funded in part by donations to the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.

"I got involved in the shelter when I was out in the street," Mr. Gerena told The Catholic Transcript while wine glasses clinked in the background. "I was, you know, doing my crazy thing, and I was going to jail, and I decided it was time for me to make a change, that I was getting too old for this."

He served 11 years of a 15-year sentence before agreeing in 2001 to enter a 28-day rehab program that would satisfy the remainder of his sentence.

"I was there for the 28 days and I came back on the street and I said, ‘I’ve got to change my life,’" he said. He had no home and went from shelter to shelter, ending up at Immaculate, he said.

That’s when Rich Luchansky, associate director of Immaculate, approached him and asked if he would volunteer at the shelter. Mr. Gerena agreed. Later, Mr. Luchansky offered him a job as a peer advocate. Now Mr. Gerena works at the front desk at Casa de Francisco, runs errands, supervises community service work details and assists the staff of the shelter.

"They said that I’ve been doing so good," he said, "and that made me feel real proud, and I decided to do the change that I did. And I did the change for my own good."

Later this November evening, speakers would ascend the podium to announce the completion of this $7.4 million Casa de Francisco building. Jacqueline M. Reardon, ICSHC board president, would remark that homeless men "have had to endure awesome cold that many of us cannot imagine." She could have been referring to Mr. Gerena when she said, "They have had the courage to face setbacks and continue on their way. We admire them so much for their perseverance and persistence. They have made us all very proud."

Homeless, destitute people have not always been homeless or destitute. Years ago – a lifetime ago – Mr. Gerena, now 57, ran his own mechanic’s garage in Hartford. He was a professional mechanic for 27 years. "I had my own business; I worked for myself; and when I went to jail, I lost everything," he said. "When you’re in there, you lose everything."

Immaculate Conception Shelter will mark its 30th anniversary this spring. It was founded by Father J. M. Donagher, then-pastor of the Immaculate Conception Parish, which is now part of St. Anne-Immaculate Conception Parish. On a cold winter morning in 1981, Father Donagher discovered the frozen body of a homeless man near the church. As he wrote in a recent issue of the shelter’s newsletter, Bearing Witness, "Initially, we were responding to great misfortune, an image that I will carry to my grave.… A lot of it was personal, assuaging my conscience that help was so close … and yet someone died so near and yet so far."

Fred Lynn, executive director of the shelter, would remark from the podium, "There’s nothing complicated about what we do here. I like to say, ‘At Immaculate, we sell hope. We give everything else away, but we sell hope.’"

He would go on to say that homeless men move from shelter to shelter, that no one is really "an Immaculate client." It’s natural for desperate men to move around looking for the best opportunity, he said, but their moving makes it difficult to help them.

"A lot of them have so little belief in themselves that they almost develop a distrust," he would say.

"We don’t go looking," he would say. "People knock on the back door and we let them in. It’s that simple."

No questions. No time limit. No one is turned away.

According to the annual Point in Time census of homeless shelters in Connecticut, taken Jan. 27, 2010, some 3,818 people were living in shelters that were filled to capacity. Many more homeless people were not counted because they are on the streets and often hard to find.

According to Carol Walter, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, speaking on Immaculate’s video, 24 percent of the state’s homeless people are in Hartford.

Mr. Lynn would say that a woman who once worked at the shelter said, "When you look at issues like homelessness, it’s easier to tell what to do the further you are from the back door of the shelter."

He would talk about the problems of re-entry, a term borrowed from the space program but referring in this context to the re-integration into society of men who have been in prison.

Not everyone’s re-entry is successful, and Mr. Gerena knew that he needed to tackle his problems head-on and follow Immaculate’s program of volunteerism.

Recently, his mother became ill, and because he is being helped by Immaculate, he is able to help her.

"I decided that my mom did so much for me, it’s time for me to do something for her," he said. "So now I’m taking care of her and I’m doing it the best way I can. I don’t have very much to offer her – I live in the shelter – but whatever I can do, I’m going to do, I’m going to make it happen for her."

At the podium, Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra would recall that as a boy growing up in the Bronx, he and his family were briefly homeless because of a fire that destroyed a neighborhood. Later, when he came to Hartford, he was homeless again, and he knows the feeling of hopelessness it can bring. "They deserve our respect," he would say, "and while they are a little bit downtrodden, all they need is a helping hand to get back up. We don’t know that in the future that person who needed the hand, such as I did when I got here, will be the person who helps you."

Mr. Gerena has been helped into Immaculate Conception Shelter. He has watched as 25 men who once shared that shelter with him have moved into an apartment building where he works. Re-entry is difficult and slow, but he is not discouraged.

"Oh, the program has changed my life greatly because if it wasn’t for the program I would be out there, who knows, I would have been dead," he said. "Seriously, I was a wild person. Once I got in trouble with the law, I kept going and going. It wasn’t a good experience. I was just throwing my life away."