HARTFORD – Sometimes, a single act of mercy can awaken and inspire many others to take action.
That’s what happened when a Hartford police officer met a homeless vet who was shuffling around town in worn out flip-flops and he decided to buy the young man a new pair of shoes.
Abigail Sullivan Moore, a member at St. Timothy Parish in West Hartford, learned of the encounter and immediately recognized an unmet need in the community.
“Both of my parents were Catholic and they did things to help people in the community. I was raised to look out for my brother and sister. That’s just what we did,” she said, matter-of-factly.
So she founded “Footwear With Care,” a program that provides new socks and new and gently used footwear to the homeless in Hartford.
“It’s such a basic need and it’s largely unmet for the homeless,” Mrs. Moore said. “The homeless tend not to have cars, and the kids outgrow their shoes.”
According to Brian Baker, assistant director of South Park Inn, a homeless shelter in the city, “People don’t realize that 40 percent of people in Hartford don’t own a car. It’s a whole different level when you rely on your own feet.”
The Footwear With Care program is a collaboration of Community Partners in Action, the Hartford Police Department, Fleet Feet Sports in West Hartford and the Connecticut Podiatric Medical Association. Members work together to reach out to the homeless in shelters, refer others in need, solicit monetary donations and footwear from individuals and business partners and offer free medical screenings.
To keep the momentum going, the fledgling team turned to Holy Trinity Church on Capitol Avenue in Hartford, known for its outreach to the poor, to host Footwear With Care’s two biggest events in 2016 — a Sneaker Party for the homeless in April and a Boot Party in December — in the Holy Trinity church hall.
The April event provided 266 homeless people with screenings, socks, sneakers and lunch. The December event supplied another 182 with boots.
“Anything that’s an outreach to the community, I’m all for it,” said Father Charles Jacobs, administrator of Holy Trinity Church, who also hosts Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the homeless that are organized by Community Partners in Action.
“We have an obligation to the people that surround us. Love your neighbor as you love yourself — that’s the key,” Father Jacobs said.
For his part, Father Jacobs also asked his parishioners to donate money and gently used footwear to the cause. In addition, he asked one parishioner who volunteered at the Sneaker Party in April to step up to the ambo and share her experience — an act that inspired another 16 parishioners to volunteer for the Boot Party in December.
“The box at the back of the church has been overflowing,” said Rebecca Morris, the parishioner and volunteer who addressed her fellow parishioners.
“The whole parish was on board,” Father Jacobs added.
Ms. Morris, a professor of business at Westfield State University in Westfield, Mass., said the Sneaker and Boot parties at the church hall set just the right tone.
“What I like about this is the dignity and respect given to these people,” she said. “I see them as people with needs as opposed to someone I should avoid.” And she recognized another thing she shares with the homeless. “It’s this whole sense of community. We all love downtown.”
At the Boot Party in December, about 45 volunteers were on hand to help out, including the 16 from Holy Trinity and eight Hartford police officers. In a festive atmosphere, the volunteers measured people’s feet, brought them two pairs of boots in their size to choose from and handed out bagged lunches and lollipops.
“We want people to have dignity and choice,” Mrs. Moore said.
Luciana Miller Williams, care coordinator for Community Health Services’ Hartford Healthy Start site, which serves pre-natal and post-partum women, said she drove five people to the December event, including a baby who received three pairs of socks.
Dr. Lynn LeBlanc, a volunteer podiatrist representing the Connecticut Podiatric Medical Association, said, “This population is on their feet all day long.” She noted that doctors spotted minor foot problems but were ready to refer any major problems to Community Health Services or the Gengras Clinic at St. Francis Hospital. The shoes, she said, are just as critical as the exams, because they protect the feet against injury and frostbite.
Dr. LeBlanc, a Catholic who attends St. Bernard Church in Tariffville, said of her involvement with Footwear With Care, “You can’t say no when somebody asks. The main thing is you always have to give back.”
More than just a pair of shoes:
An encounter with hope
Joseph Edwards served for 4½ years in the Army Active Guard Reserve. After leaving the military, he eventually found himself homeless on the streets of Hartford in 2015.
That’s when he met Hartford Police Officer Jim Barrett.
"I was walking my beat in front of city hall,” Officer Barrett recalled. “I was dealing with another individual in the street when Edwards showed up. He looked like he needed some help.”
According to Officer Barrett, the young man “was wearing flop-flops and his feet were all messed up.” There was another fact that tugged at policeman’s heart. “I found out he was a vet and from there I took a passion for it because I’m a vet,” he said.
Officer Barrett used his own money to buy a new pair of Nike sneakers and gave them to Edwards. He also connected the homeless vet with a temporary job and social service agencies.
Mr. Edwards is currently living in temporary housing in Waterbury and is the father of one child. He’s looking for work and for permanent housing.
Over time, the two men have kept in touch.
When Officer Barrett told Edwards about the Boot Party at Holy Trinity Church in Hartford that was inspired by their first meeting, Edwards was eager to attend the event. The two men reunited at Holy Trinity in December 2016.
“He was 180 pounds and now he’s 250 pounds,” Officer Barrett said after seeing Edwards, age 28, at the Boot Party. “He looks great. He looks well. He’s in good health and in good spirits.”
Reflecting on those sneakers and that single act of mercy, Edwards said, “It gave me a state of mind to not give up. You never know when you’re going to get help to change your situation.”
– Shelley Wolf