January 27, 2022
WATERBURY — Paul Porto was hungry and unsure where he’d be sleeping amid the frigid temperatures this week.
The mid-afternoon temperature Wednesday peaked at 22 degrees, with occasional 25 mile-per-hour winds, making it feel much colder. Thursday brought more of the same. Nighttime lows plummeted into the single digits.
It’s warm, though, inside the Center for Human Development’s Hospitality Center at 690 East Main St. A couple of sandwiches and a cup of coffee go down quickly. The television is playing reruns of “Blue Bloods.”
For the less fortunate, this is a welcome distraction from the business of survival without housing.
On the sidewalk just down the street, a pile of discarded clothing is frozen to the ground. The wind whips the banners of the tire shop next door.
When asked what he’ll do about the snowstorm forecast for Saturday, Porto said, “Maybe I’ll make an igloo.”
The city has entered the final week of a 20-day severe cold weather protocol set by Gov. Ned Lamont. The directive ends Wednesday.
Under normal circumstances, the Hospitality Center is available until 5 p.m. to anyone seeking warmth, food or resources. But during an emergency protocol, the center switches to housing people for the night, a practiced ballet often invisible to the public.
Using a 20-foot-by-20-foot heated tent provided by the city as a temporary alternative, everyone piles out of the center so it can be sanitized. When things are clean, those staying for the night go back inside, leaving the tent as an emergency center. This rotation and deep cleaning is done three times a day.
Socially distanced cots set up indoors and on the top two floors of the building enable everyone to have safety, space and companionship.
With just one staff member, two volunteers and a Waterbury police officer on duty from 7 to 11 p.m., the center has managed to provide safe overnight accommodations for the homeless.
“I talk with Megan Santiago at the St. Vincent DePaul Shelter probably five times a day,” Hospitality Center Program Manager Lori Walling said.
Santiago said, “It’s definitely been busy. We’ve been coordinating with the hospitality center and Lori’s crew to make sure everybody who needs shelter has it. Our shelter is open 24/7, so many of our participants are staying inside most of the day to keep warm. We’re providing breakfast, lunch and dinner, and will keep doing so until next Wednesday, when the directive expires.”
The clear communication between social services and public safety officials in Waterbury is notable.
“Police bring people to who is closest,” Santiago said. “We’ve had a police officer drop somebody off at our door the other night, and I think someone was dropped off (Tuesday) night, too.”
According to a Jan. 18 news release from Lamont, this team effort is part of a greater state network activated during emergencies that “enables 2-1-1 to act as a clearinghouse to assist in finding shelter space and transportation for those who need it.”
On Wednesday, there were extra beds available at St. Vincent dePaul. Walling’s office door at the Hospitality Center is open, boxes of recently donated items piled in orderly chaos. She’s been working full tilt, as has her staff. No one wants to admit they are tired.
But for people like Paul Porto, the compassion found here goes a long way.
To find help, call 2-1-1.
Contact Jay Dunn at [email protected] or on Twitter @JADunnIII