HARTFORD – Everybody thinks homelessness should be ended. Sister of Mercy Patricia McKeon knows it can be.
“I think it’s extremely realistic,” the executive director of Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation said. “Think about it. Homelessness as we know it today didn’t exist prior to the 1980s.”
Mercy has been fighting homelessness since the corporation was founded 30 years ago, when homelessness was exploding into epidemic proportions. “Think about it,” Sister Patricia said. “People had left the cities in the ’50s and ’60s, all right? They went to the suburbs. They left the cities, and so people moved into them, and in lots of cases, these people didn’t have a lot of money.”
Cities began to deteriorate, and so in the ’80s, the federal government created tax credits for developers who would renovate them.
“So developers bought up these buildings and said, ‘You’re out; I’m going to renovate the building.’ They renovated the building and charged high rents. These folks now can’t come in, so there’s a net loss of housing,” Sister Patricia explained.
The situation was worsened by the closing of mental institutions, effectively tossing between 6,000 and 9,000 Connecticut residents out on the streets; and by the AIDS crisis, when people infected with HIV could not stay in a shelter without running the risk of catching a deadly cold from the person on the next cot.
“Mercy ... Making Homelessness History,” is a tag line on Mercy’s promotional material. “Mercy seeks to end homelessness by advocating for changes in the social systems that perpetuate homelessness,” according to its mission statement.
But those changes cost money. Even advocating for those changes costs money. Funding for Mercy Housing and Shelter comes from private and public sources. Those include the parish-based Vicariate Outreach Program of the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, which supports numerous other shelters, food pantries and banks, soup kitchens and much more.
Five years ago, Mercy began a capital campaign to raise $5.5 million to repair, update and renovate St. Elizabeth House at 118 Main St., where 55 people live in transitional housing. They raised $3.5 million, most of which was spent on the historic building’s exterior, a new elevator, new windows, a new fire stairwell and a ramp system.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 26 celebrated those changes, but there is much work yet to do.
Sister Patricia said the interior work still needs to be done.
These improvements will include air conditioning, a new dining area, a more welcoming atmosphere and a relocated Friendship Center, where individuals and families have access to critical community resources and where more than 250 meals are served daily.
Although Mercy has five other housing locations – Supportive Housing Services, Mercy House and Catherine’s Place in Hartford, Shepherd Home in Middletown, and The Residence at St. Mary’s in West Hartford – St. Elizabeth House was the first and still has the most programs under one roof. One program features single-occupancy dormitories where homeless adults can live for up to two years. Another provides short-term housing for about 10 adults with mental health issues. Another has helped 84 percent of its clients find permanent jobs, according to job developer Priscilla Brown.
The front of St. Elizabeth House is the 200-year-old Barnard House, home of Yale-educated Henry Barnard, the first Commissioner of Education in the United States and the founder of the public school system in Connecticut. At the request of Hartford Bishop Michael Tierney, who purchased the house from Mr. Barnard’s estate, the Daughters of the Holy Spirit took possession of it in 1905. It became the order’s motherhouse and later a safe house for single working girls and women. It was named St. Elizabeth’s Home.
The Daughters of the Holy Spirit more than doubled the size of the original Barnard House before relocating their provincial headquarters to Putnam. The Sisters of Mercy became aware in 1983 that developers were eyeing the historic structure for demolition, which would have left 65 residential tenants homeless.
The Mercy community bought it. Mercy Housing and Shelter was incorporated on Oct. 31, 1983.
“In those 30 years, we’ve grown from our residence of 65 people and a soup kitchen in the basement to 55 people, a mental health program, lots of services for the people who come through the Friendship Center, a medical on-site facility, case management resources, referrals, helping people with housing, as well as meals,” Sister Patricia said.
In 1980, Sister Patricia founded St. Vincent DePaul Place in Middletown, a soup kitchen, food pantry, shelter and community services provider. Also in Middletown, she founded a transitional housing program for families and a supportive housing program for single adults. She became executive director of Mercy Housing and Shelter in 1999.
“They are strong people,” she said about those she serves. “I don’t know that I could live through being homeless with the strength and oftentimes with the grace that they do.”
They are not faceless or nameless, she said. “I hate the term ‘the poor,’ ‘the homeless,’ because every single person I’ve ever met is an individual. They have a history; they have a family; they have a story; there’s a reason they are where they are, because of what life has dealt them and the choices they have made.”
And being homeless is not a lifestyle choice. “This is not bottom. We’ve had people graduate from community college, from Goodwin, from Middlesex. Some of them start their own businesses.”