A Hand Up transforms homes, lives of the formerly homeless in Connecticut

CAFCA | January 27, 2013 |

When Kevin Burke was homeless, he stored his few belongings in garbage plastic bags. A veteran who has battled depression and addiction for years, Burke’s family slipped away over time. Eventually, he was living on the streets.

This year, Burke’s life has changed completely for the better. With support that he never knew was available to him, the Connecticut Department of Veteran’s Affairs has been a strong ally. Burke’s poor health is improving and he earned a spot in transitional housing in Manchester.

When Burke learned that he qualified for permanent housing through the HUD VASH voucher program awarded by the Dept. of Veteran Affairs - specifically for veterans - he began planning for his second chance. The apartment came to him quickly, offering little time to prepare. How would he fill empty rooms and create a new home?

It wasn’t as hard as you’d think. Burke got a hand up from...A Hand Up, a West Hartford-based non-profit group that helps formerly homeless people in the Greater Hartford region. The group provides donated furniture, kitchen supplies, small appliances, and more. For free.

Last year the group helped 24 vets. This year that number grew to 33. These vets got a hand up, not only to furnish a home, but to launch new lives.

It’s not just veterans who can benefit from a boost offered by A Hand Up.

The 99.9 percent volunteer group currently delivers furniture to an average of two apartments a week –mostly on Saturdays and Sundays when volunteers are available - and opens its warehouse doors on weekdays when clients are able to bring a truck and move items themselves.

Since its start in 2005, the group has helped hundreds of people, including single parents with young children, abused women, men and women that battled addictions and other mental and health challenges, and a wide variety of individual's on paths that led them to homelessness. The group works closely with social workers and many agencies like the Community Renewal Team, the Department of Families and Children, and the VA.

A Hand Up eases the transition back into a home again. Aside from asking for “a back story” on how a person became homeless, there is no red tape.

Donna Vibes is one of the VA social workers who has directed many vets, including Burke, to services offered by A Hand Up. During the course of her work on the VA’s Newington campus, Vibe has come to believe so much in its mission that she also sits on the organization’s board.

“It’s such a big help. The worst thing is to get someone into an apartment and it’s totally empty,” Vibes said.

Veterans, especially, are really willing to help each other Vibes has noticed. Someone always has a truck and a few of the guys will get together and help another one move into an apartment. Burke meets weekly with other vets working to improve their lives. They offer each other pointers on how to move ahead, Burke said.

“Every situation is so different,” said Vibes. “It keeps me humble.”

The transition from living on the streets to a new home can be tough. Although many people manage to escape homelessness, they do come home to an empty house every night. How do you live without a chair or a bed?

That’s the simple question that Rosemary Cleaves asked. The retired social worker noticed that even though they helped some people get into apartment, they would still return to Loaves and Fishes for lunches and dinners.

Why?

“They said they didn’t have kitchen supplies. No utensils, no plates, no table and no chairs,” said Michael Fishman, the current president of the non-profit.

Cleaves told them, “Hey, we know some people who have some stuff to donate,” Fishman said.

A Hand Up “just grew from that.”

Aside from Cleaves, formerly of West Hartford, the founders of A Hand Up includes Diane Mack, Robin Gilmartin and Jane Arnold, all Bloomfield residents. The friends would sit around a kitchen table monthly to come up with a project that could make a difference. Christine Pina, of West Hartford, also joined the team early on.

Fishman enthusiastically joined the group a few years ago after a neighbor invited him along on a delivery.

“A light bulb just turned on,” said Fishman. “I don’t like to throw out stuff that others can use. I used to take it to the curb so people could stop and someone would always pick it up.”

Many homeless people who are able to find an apartment return to a shelter or transitional housing environment after a short time. So finding a home is just one step. People also need a support structure to survive and become successful at living independently.

“It’s one big stress lifted off your shoulders,” Burke said.

Now there’s a safe place where Burke’s autistic son, 15, can stay. Weekend visits with dad have resumed - another important step toward creating a stable routine. The guys can sleep soundly, each in their own room, with a new bed and a dresser to organize clothes.

Burke is grateful for many things, he said. No longer having to “dig through piles to find something” anymore is one of the simple pleasures of creating a stable home.

“I was overwhelmed. To get a bed…bedding,” said Burke, who didn’t expect to get into an apartment until sometime next spring. “They were very helpful picking stuff out for me. I was having trouble trying to figure out how to arrange everything.”

The 1,000 square foot storage space in West Hartford is filled with an organized inventory of furntiture and goods that range from sofas, to new mattresses, bedding, comforters, and lots of small, boxy, older tv's, loads of china boxed in sets, lamps, curtains, and even some cribs, but with new regulations older models can’t be accepted.

“They have nothing. So we come in and they have a desk, a couch, chairs, microwave, end tables, bed and a nightstand,” said Fishman. “Just to see that transformation, their smile makes it all worth it.”

The people being helped touch the lives of volunteers much more than they probably realize. One story Fishman recalls involves a woman who moved to Connecticut and was homeless. She had three kids and they were able to get into a two bedroom apartment. Fishman remembers the kids sitting on a broken loveseat, watching a small, battered tv while volunteers moved in furnishings. It was tricky fitting two beds in each room, Fishman said.

“It was a stretch, but we maneuvered and got it done,” said Fishman. “There was a teenage girl, about 16, who was helping out with the two younger kids while we were there. We brought them everything, including dishes. The teenager started to cry.”

“This is so good, I can finally sit down and lay on my bed,” the teen told Fishman.

The next day was Mother’s Day, and the woman said, “This is the best Mother’s Day present I could have imagined,” recalled Fishman. “It warms your heart.”

The non-profit pays for storage space, a truck, gas, insurance on the truck and volunteer drivers, the part-time salary of the 15-hour employee who manages the storage space, plus new beds and pillows. With bed bug outbreaks in recent years, the group got strict regarding donated bedding. Plus, Fishman said, when the towns started to charge $40-50 for mattress pick-ups, the quality of donated mattresses went downhill fast.

Donations and volunteers are always needed, especially drivers with good driving records, Fishman said. Donations are picked up, sorted, cleaned, organized and fixed-up when needed. The group benefits from many college age volunteers, especially University of Hartford students that can be counted on to help for 15 to 20 weekends during the year. They used to get a lot of help from area high schools, like Hall, Conard and Northwest Catholic, but with newer graduated driving restrictions, it became too complicated to manage.

Sometimes the group comes into a windfall donation, like when the Hawthorne Inn remodeled last year, offering A Hand Up tables, chairs, 300 sets of dishes, and silverware. They also have received calls to pick-up an entire estate when an elderly parent passes away, Fishman said.

“You know what they say…one man’s trash is another’s treasure,“ said Fishman. “Besides, our landfills are full.”

Volunteers picked up an entire household of furniture and goods from one shoreline family in October 2011. The storage unit was so packed that that the door almost wouldn’t close and some items were left on the truck. Then came Alfred, that nasty October snowstorm.

“People stopped donating, but it didn’t slow us down. We were still making deliveries,” said Fishman. “We were able to continue furnishing homes through the end of February.”

Since their clients tend to live in older apartments, with small rooms and narrow halls and stairwells, the group prefers smaller, lighter items that can easily be moved.

“And, they usually live on the third floor,” Fishman said, with a laugh.

A Hand Up will “hit the ground running in the new year” and right now there is a big shortage of pillows (must be brand new) and double sheets. But every gently used household item, in good condition, is always in demand.

A Hand Up also has its own needs: more volunteers to help collect and deliver household goods, more home furnishings and a volunteer grant writer/fund raiser. Financial contributions are sought to supplement expenses currently being met by the new agency’s founders.

“Who knows, maybe next year we can help 100 or even 150 people,” hopes Fishman.