Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Life Saving Diversions at St. Elizabeth House

St. Elizabeth House, 118 Main Street, Hartford, CT,
home of Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's Diversion Center.

Waiting for the door to open, people are lined up as many as forty deep on a typical weekday morning at St. Elizabeth House's main entrance. They are our neighbors in crisis hoping for support once inside. In imminent danger of being swallowed into the downward cycle of homelessness, they are seeking a life saving diversion from living on the street. This is their reality. And it's just a small glimpse of their daily reality that I saw on my recent visit to St. Elizabeth's. I was there to learn first-hand about Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's innovative program to divert people away from becoming homeless.

Twenty months ago on July 5, 2016, Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation (Mercy) welcomed its first clients to its newly created Diversion Center at St. Elizabeth House on Main Street in Hartford. Faced with diminishing federal and state financial support for Mercy's long-established transitional housing programs, Executive Director Dave Martineau, now retired, and current ED Judith Gough led a nine month multi-organization collaboration to develop an aggressive "up front" program designed to immediately divert people away from homelessness --- people who are on the brink of having to survive minute to minute alone with no place to go. "This program enhances Mercy's ability to prevent a person from becoming homeless before their situation spins into a full-blown, life threatening crisis," Executive Director Gough told me.

Throughout its thirty-five year old mission of providing housing assistance and supportive services to persons who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, Mercy has prided itself as being on the forefront of creating workable community solutions. Simple and direct, the Diversion Center's goal is to find its clients safe, stable housing rapidly. The Center's reach is wide. It provides services in what's organized as the Greater Hartford Coordinated Area Network, which, in addition to Hartford and its surrounding towns, includes Enfield, Manchester, East Hartford, Ellington, and Tolland.

"Nearly thirty percent of people in this situation [of being homeless] can be diverted from this tragic outcome with minimal mediation," according to Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness workshops. "Often the solution can be overcome with little or no money to reverse the events leading to homelessness," saving Hartford and Connecticut thousands of dollars.

According to Stephanie Corbin, Mercy's Shelter Diversion Coordinator, the diversion process is best described as highly responsive "front door triage." It provides personalized solutions with accompanying emotional support aimed at mitigating the problems leading to a client's crisis. It's all accomplished at the Center in centralized coordination with several Hartford based agencies serving the homeless, including Journey Home, the Salvation Army, Community Health Resources, and the City of Hartford. Corbin emphasized that the key to successful client outcomes is case manager creativity.  The solution for each client must address the direct question, "What do we need to do right now to keep you out of the shelter system?"

Stephanie Corbin (L), Shelter Diversion Coordinator, conducts a case
conferencing session with case managers (L-R) Jackie Florez, Shefia Ibrahim,
and Latoya Smith to review recommendations for each client.

To counsel people in crisis quickly and directly, a collaborative team of case managers from Mercy, the Salvation Army, and Community Health Resources staff the Center every week. People seeking the Center's support first call the 211 Infoline, which initially assesses the caller's need for services, and then, as deemed appropriate, schedules an appointment for them to see a Center case manager within 24 to 48 hours. Appointments are scheduled Monday through Friday beginning at 9:00 AM.

A sampling of client-specific crisis resolutions include:
  • Arranging a family intervention allowing a teenager to seek redemption and return home after being kicked out for unacceptable behavior.
  • Working with a family facing eviction because of an unresolved rent dispute with their landlord. 
  • Working with a family being evicted for violating a rental agreement by housing non-family members.
  • Assisting a client with short-term financial assistance needed to keep them in good stead with their landlord while they recover from a medical setback.  
  • Providing a client with bus or train fare enabling them to reunite and live with family residing in another state.

In addition to crisis resolution assistance, Diversion Center clients may also see a nurse or physician's assistant in the center's medical suite staffed by Charter Oak Health Center, or find respite in St. Elizabeth House's Friendship Center with a healthy meal, or hot shower.

St. Elizabeth's Friendship Center serves a hot lunch prepared on site. 

Opened just twenty months ago, Mercy's Diversion Center is still in its formative stage, yet its results to date are encouraging. In fiscal year 2017, 2,577 individuals were seen by a case manager. During that period 456 were diverted from homelessness, sixty-two of whom were between the ages of 18-24, and 124 required limited financial assistance that helped them avoid homelessness. Further, 1,244 people, whose cases were not readily resolvable, were referred directly to city shelters, and the remaining group were either referred to other area programs, or were deemed ineligible for assistance.

According to Executive Director Gough current demand for the Center's diversion service is showing an increase over last fiscal year. With one full year of experience, and a second well underway, the Diversion Center has charted a path for other agencies serving the homeless to follow, and to improve upon collectively. It's a path the Connecticut Department of Housing strongly endorses. It's a path leading to life saving diversions, or perhaps one could say "Mercy-ful Diversions."

This post was reprinted in the Mercy Housing and Shelter Spring 2018 Newsletter, and in Journey Home Connecticut's Journey Home News Spring 2018.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

For the Record: I am currently a member of Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's Board of Trustees. Further, I served as an analyst in developing "Hartford's Plan to End Chronic Homelessness by 2015"; and I represented Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity in the development of a subsequent implementation plan called "Journey Home -- The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in the Capitol Region"

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Delicious Food with a Generous Serving of Second Chances

Chris White, a Culinary Training Collaborative graduate,
with Felicia Jenkins, Chef Instructor at Zest 280

Eat lunch at Zest 280 and you'll enjoy a good, healthy lunch along with a generous serving of second chances. I did. On my first visit I savored this mission-based café's homemade Grain Bowl. It was a delicious combination of lentils, quinoa, brown rice, peppers, tomato, kale and grilled chicken. This cozy café at 280 Park Road in West Hartford, sister restaurant to the acclaimed Pond House Café, is celebrating its first anniversary since owners Kim Yarum and Louis Lista reopened it a year ago with a mission dedicated to providing former prison inmates a second chance to earn the skills necessary to re-enter society with a viable career in the workplace.

Zest 280's complete menu is a made-from-scratch fare of soups, salads, sandwiches, and hot plates, all prepared on-site by paid "externs" who commit to a rigorous career development program sponsored by Community Partners in Action (CPA) in collaboration with Zest 280 and The Kitchen at Billings Forge in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood.

On the day of my first visit, Chris White was my host and server. His welcoming style, attention to detail, and willingness to explain Zest 280's mission appropriately complemented Zest’s bright and open atmosphere. He holds a permanent position on the Pond House Café's banquet staff, where he was placed after completing his Zest externship. However, this day Chris was handling Zest's hosting duties gladly to fill a last minute staffing need.

 The healthy, homemade Grain Bowl I ate on my first visit. 

On my second visit my friend had the Roasted Beet Salad and ...

... I ordered the Salmon Cake Served Over Indian Rice.

Working as a Culinary Training Collaborative, CPA, The Kitchen and Zest 280 combine to provide professional training in food preparation and customer service with actual on-the-job business experience to prepare people "seeking a second chance for careers in the culinary arts and hospitality industries." The Collaborative is integral to CPA's mission which focuses on behavioral change and advocacy for criminal justice reform. CPA's "employment, basic needs, reentry and recovery services work together to reduce recidivism, enhance public safety and inform public policy -- all at a fraction of the cost of prison."

Critical to the Collaborative's success is The Kitchen at Billings Forge. Its Kitchen Culinary Program provides desperately needed paid job training opportunities for people who face the often overwhelming challenges of unemployment, low education levels, and high poverty rates. Also, it seeks to help the significant number of former prisoners who are released to Hartford where they often remain only to face high barriers to employment.  The Kitchen's specific on-the-job training creates real-life experiences for participants interested in both culinary and customer service careers. All training is conducted by experienced professionals working side-by-side with students cooking for and serving patrons in its café, as well as at catered events. As reported on its web site "almost 100 folks so far have started the training and, within eight weeks of completing the program, 75% went directly to jobs with starting wages averaging 119% of minimum wage."

Zest 280 fulfills its partnership responsibilities by employing selected Kitchen Culinary Program graduates directly into what it calls its 10-week hands-on culinary "externship." It's a paid position with the opportunity for the graduates to apply their newly acquired skills outside of a training environment. Externs work under the tutelage of Chef Instructor Felicia Jenkins, a seasoned chef who turned her own second chance years ago into more than two decades of combined experience with The Kitchen and the Pond House Café. Felicia guides the externs through a structured program designed to provide advanced culinary skills, as well as "front-of-the-house" customer service skills critical to professional interaction with the public. After completing their externship, participants receive Zest's assistance in finding permanent job placement through interview coaching, and guidance on resume preparation and job application completion. To date twelve externs have successfully completed the program and nine have been placed in area positions.

On my third visit Victoria Negrón was our host and server.
My friend enjoyed the Zesty Starter and I savored
the perfectly spiced Thai Chicken Salad.

Zest 280's bright and open atmosphere.

The Culinary Training Collaborative is an excellent example of a partnership determined to clear a pathway back into society for individuals seeking a second chance. The opportunity to work at Zest 280 provides a vital step along the road to gainful employment. It's a step toward restoring hope and dignity to a vulnerable population searching for an opportunity for redemption.  Zest 280 is The Eatery with a Twist where you'll enjoy a delicious healthy lunch with a generous serving of second chances. 

Believe in second chances and eat with Zest! Often!   

Zest 280 is located at 280 Park Road in West Hartford
(Photo from the Community Partners in Action web site)

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr., and one from Community Partners in Action as noted.