Full Story . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Monsignor Joseph Farrell had an idea of how to help “street alcoholics” back in the 60’s. He would open a drop in Center to provide them with food, a place to get them off the streets during the day and the fellowship of those who cared. And so on October 15th 1968 he opened the first Friendship Center with these powerful words:
“Today I’m opening a storefront Friendship Center. You folks know the location well – it’s between two package stores. We’re going to show the needy that nobody is a nobody in the eyes of God. I hope this work will grow and grow and be of as much help to as many people as possible.”
From that humble start, the Friendship Center has grown to encompass a Continuum of Care philosophy of offering services for those who are poor, hungry and homeless. The growth process is a story in itself, each added service an act of faith always keeping in mind the original dream born fruit in the heart and mind of our founder.
1982: Times had changed since 1968. There was more hunger; people were actually homeless in our country. Affordable housing developed after WWII was becoming inaccessible. The great American dream of every family owning their own home was leaving many working poor behind and as housing became less affordable this population was beginning to experience episodes of homelessness. Families were forced to choose between paying the rent or putting food on the table, paying the utility bills or paying the rent.
During the early 80’s two separate movements took place in New Britain. The first, spearheaded by Father Malcolm McDowell and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, worked with other volunteers, churches and clergy to create a soup kitchen in the city. Called The Community Free Supper Program, the program offered a free meal at 5:00 pm, six days a week, each day in a different downtown church. Participating churches included: St. Mark’s Episcopal; South Congregational/First Baptist; Bethany Covenant; First Lutheran; St. Mary Roman Catholic Church and Trinity United Methodist. In time, other religious communities joined in to prepare and serve the meals being served in the downtown churches.
Following is a listing of the churches/synagogues that joined the initial group of six and still to this day participate in the Center’s work. In New Britain:
Congregation Tephereth Israel
Saint James Baptist Church
First Church of Christ, Congregational
Saint Jerome Church
First Lutheran Church of the Reformation
Saint John Evangelical Lutheran Church
Holy Cross Church
Saint Maurice Church
Sacred Hearth Church
Spottswood AME Zion Church
Saint Ann Church
Stanley Memorial Church
Saint Francis of Assisi Church
And neighboring towns:
Berlin Congregational Church
Kensington Baptist Church (Now Wellspring)
Kensington Congregational Church
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Kensington
Sacred Heart Church, East Berlin
Saint Paul Church, Kensington
United Methodist Church, East Berlin
United Methodist Church, Kensington
First Church of Christ Congregational, Farmington
Grace United Church, Farmington
Church of Christ Congregational, Newington
Church of the Holy Spirit, Newington
Congregation B’Nai Sholom, Newington
Grace Episcopal Church, Newington
United Methodist Church, Newington
St. Mary R.C. Church, Newington
Congregational Church of Plainville
Our Lady of Mercy Church, Plainville
These 37 places of worship have formed the volunteer core of the Friendship Center for these 30 years. In addition they formed the financial core of the Emergency Needs Ministry Program yet to come.
The second movement of the early 80’s, this time spearheaded by The Reverend Hugh Penney from South Congregational/First Baptist Church, was to work with other churches to create an emergency shelter in the city. A building was purchased at 516 Main Street with the Arch Diocese of Hartford joining in the effort to provide a $65,000 mortgage at a 2% interest rate. There, rooms on the second floor were renovated with space for 16 men and 6 women. It soon became apparent that a permanent home needed to be found for the Community Free Supper Program.
It was difficult for the Program’s guests to move from church to church each evening. In addition, feeding up to 250 people in the basements of the churches was becoming cumbersome. The volunteers either had to work in a church kitchen with which they were not familiar or prepare the meal in their own kitchen and transport it to the designated church to serve. The Volunteer Committee overseeing the Program began their search. Finally it was decided to renovate the first floor of the Friendship Center building at 516 Main Street
into a kitchen and dining room that could accommodate the feeding program. The Alex W. Stanley Foundation and the Robert C. Vance Foundation graciously provided the funds, $50,000.
As time went on, it became apparent that a merger between the Friendship Center and the Feeding Program made sense. The Friendship Center was having difficulty with its Executive Director and the Feeding Program needed to incorporate as a non-profit organization. So in late 1983 the Board of the Friendship Center voted to incorporate The Community Free Supper Program as an additional service of the Center. The volunteers who had worked so hard overseeing the feeding program continued on, at least for the time being, as an ad hoc committee. Eventually, some of these members were invited onto the Board of Directors of the Friendship Center. Now wedded, the Community Free Supper Program became known as the Community Kitchen, a program of the Friendship C enter.
1986: As the plight of homelessness continued to haunt American society, New Britain’s churches were increasingly inundated with requests from those not members of their congregations for assistance with rents, utilities, gasoline, medical bills, food and other miscellaneous items.
NEWBRACC, the New Britain Area Conference of Churches, took the lead in bringing together clergy and representatives from the United Way to try and offer help, both to those in need and the churches. The result was the creation of the Emergency Needs Ministry, a program that would combine resources from the faith community into a pool of funds that could be used for assistance. Those in need would be referred to a Coordinator that would be hired to develop and oversee the program. The Coordinator would meet with clients, determine whether there was a legitimate need, access community resources that might be available and, when necessary, provide funds to alleviate the situation.
Once the concept was in place, there needed to be a location for it. The Friendship Center Board of Directors was approached with the idea of housing and offering administrative oversight. Although somewhat reluctant due to budget problems funding the shelter and Community Kitchen, the Board took a leap of faith and said yes. A coordinator was hired and so began the development of this program that has become a hub of the social service network in our city.
1986 also saw the creation of the New Britain Family Shelter, Inc. This was the brainchild of Mr. William E. Attwood, a retired local bank president and an active member of St. Mark’s Church. He saw a need for a New Britain shelter for families; the Friendship Center only offered shelter for adult men and women. The Friendship Center was not ready to take on additional programs.
So, Bill Attwood arranged with the New Britain Housing Authority to provide an apartment to be used for homeless families. He formed a Board of Directors, arranged for the new Coordinator of the Emergency Needs Ministry Program and the New Britain Human Rights officer to act as unpaid staff persons, found donated furniture for the apartment, convinced a local pastor with a pickup truck to pick up the furniture, went himself to help with the move and opened the first family shelter in New Britain.
Over the next year or so seven homeless families found needed shelter in this apartment. When the Housing Authority decided the apartment could no longer be used for the purpose of an emergency family shelter, Bill Attwood again approached the Center to see if it would take on this challenge. This time the Board of Directors agreed and started making plans.
The local architectural firm, Kaestle Boos, was approached to draw up plans to renovate the 3rd floor of 516 Main Street. When told the cost would be $250,000, the Board of Directors was shocked! Where would the Center, hardly able to keep its programs going, be able to raise that much money? Hugh Penney, on the Board at the time and always a future thinker, raised the ante when he brought to the floor the idea that by the time the 3rd floor project at 516 Main Street was completed the space would be too small for our needs. His proposal: to find another site for all the Center’s programs.
The rest of the Board concurred and so began the search for the appropriate building, a search that would end up taking 3 years, 1987 – 1989. Board member Norma Harss, a local realtor, was key in this search. Many sites were looked at and rejected because of location, size, NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) or condition. Finally, in 1989 an appropriate location was found at 241-249 Arch Street and the building was purchased from Alfred Prestia for $180,000. This three story building would not only house homeless men, women and families but it would have a Transitional Living Program on its 3rd floor – 15 individual rooms for adult men and women who had moved beyond stumbling blocks to independent living but needed more time in a safe environment to solidify these gains.
Later the adjacent lot was purchased from a New Haven developer, Larry Eisner, for $210,000. Plans were drawn and the total price of purchase and renovation was $3,100,000 – a very long way from the initial $250,000 to renovate the 3rd floor of 516 Main Street!
How did we do it? It was an incredible act of faith. In 1990 the Friendship Center embarked on a capital campaign. Consultants were hired and Donald W. Davis, CEO of the Stanley Works, agreed to chair the campaign committee. At the same time, the New Britain Family Emergency Shelter, Inc. ceased to exist and three members of its Board of Directors, Bill Attwood, Donald Davidson and Robert Grace, joined the Friendship Center Board, increasing board membership from 15 to 18.
While Mr. Davis chaired the campaign, it was Bill Attwood who took the lead. He was at the Center almost daily pouring over figures and assisting the staff in the successful completion of the campaign. Eventually, $1,300,000 was pledged and in the hard economic times of the early 90’s less than $10,000 was uncollected, a real tribute to the greater New Britain community and its concern for the Friendship Center! The money, together with over $2,000,000 from the state Department of Housing, brought the financial package successfully together.
July 2, 1992: Finally! All the hard work had paid off and the Friendship Center moved into its new home at 241-249 Arch Street. What a day it was! The 22 residents who had been living at 516 Main Street slept there the night of July 1st. On July 2nd, they packed up their belongings and, together with staff, began the walk down Main Street to Arch Street. New furniture, new beds, new kitchen, new laundry room, new residential floor all awaited them. This author, who had worked in the building for 9 years, stayed behind to say good-bye to 516 Main Street. Many miracles had taken place – many lives had been healed. Even though the Center was to own the building until 1996 when it finally managed to sell it, a time in the history of the Friendship Center had come to an end.
Ahead was the future – families would be served, transitional living would be provided. The Friendship Center was moving from a very small organization to a much larger one – an organization that would have staff and resources to offer help to many more people, make a real difference in the lives of many more.
The day was not without turmoil for the staff. Two elderly residents, Clarence and Miss Esther, were insisting they couldn’t leave 516 Main. This was home to them. Clarence we were able to get into a car and he came with great hesitation to the new building. Once inside he was afraid to go outdoors – the new surroundings were unfamiliar and very frightening. Miss Esther refused a ride and as staff left the building she informed them she didn’t think she would be able to make the move. With that she walked off, staff unable to stop her. This was her usual morning ritual, up and out of the building at 8:00 am not to return until 5:00 pm. You see, at 516 Main Street, the shelter was open only from 4:00 pm – 8:00 am 7 days a week. The new building would change all that. Now residents would be able to stay indoors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, a welcome change.
Back to Miss Esther. Off she went at 8:00 am with staff not knowing when, or if, they would see her again. As 4:30 that afternoon crept toward 5:00, staff started to get really worried. They were planning to go out in cars and cover the city looking for her. However, as they were standing outside at about 4:50 pm they looked down Arch Street and there was Miss Esther walking proudly up the street. They waited for her and when she arrived the Executive Director escorted her in. “Why this is lovely!” she said. Miss Esther was home and the Center’s move was complete.
The 90’s: The first order of business was to get settled in the new building. 516 Main Street was small and cramped. Staff could always monitor the residents because they could see them. The new building was very different. There were three large floors for the residents use. Staff could not always monitor every movement of the residents because now there was more privacy – an empowering thing for the residents but scary for the staff.
In the beginning we made some rather stupid decisions. After 9:00 pm all residents were required to be on the residential floors. But, because this is a smoke free building, some residents wanted to have a cigarette, or just some fresh air, into the evening. So our solution was, until 11:00 pm, every half hour a staff member would take those who wanted to downstairs for a smoke or whatever. The residents would line up and “march together” down the stairs to the first floor.
The residents took our anal behavior with good humor. Here they were adults being treated like they were in elementary school – but they bore with us and followed the rules. Some laughed and suggested they all hold hands – or establish the “buddy” system, each one with a partner so they would not get lost.
Eventually the staff came to its senses and caught up with the residents. They realized they were either going to drive themselves crazy or were going to have to trust the residents to behave as the adults they are. Does it always work? Are there sometimes problems? Yes, of course. Some moms insist on going downstairs after their kids are asleep, even though moms are always supposed to be with their children. Sometimes folks take off and return into the early morning hours. How do we handle it? We have rules but we try our best to be flexible within the confines of safety. We handle each situation as it arises trying to blend flexibility, resident responsibility, compassion and the need for rules into a solution that works.
This is an art, not a science, and training staff in our ways is not an easy task. However, those we serve have a history of failure. Constantly saying no, or kicking someone out when we may be able to help if they stay, is not the recipe for the miracles we try to create.
Assertive Substance Abuse Outreach Program: In 1993, the Friendship Center joined with Community Mental Health Affiliates to create this program that would operate out of the Friendship Center soup kitchen. Here case management staff, both from the Center and CMHA, would greet guests as they came to eat. Together with the Friendship Center nurse, they would gain the trust of those still living on the streets and try to “talk them in” so that medical, mental health and substance abuse issues could be addressed. The first year the two agencies received a $15,000 grant from the Regional Substance Abuse Action Council. After one year, there were no more funds available. The Center and CMHA tried to obtain both state and federal funding to continue and expand the program. However, both attempts failed.
The Friendship Center continues the program in a small way with an ongoing $4000 grant from the New Britain Foundation for Public Giving and once a week clinical staff support during the soup kitchen hour from CMHA. This is a small program but for those it serves it continues to work. The Friendship Center acts as Representative Payee to some in the community who, because of substance abuse issues, cannot manage their own funds and would be homeless without the Center paying the bills.
In New Britain, the Friendship Center is the lead agency dealing with all issues of homelessness and it continues to be seen as a “safe place” for those who cannot yet conquer long histories of substance abuse and/or mental illness. Staff has learned to love this population and, through the sadness of watching them abuse their bodies, admire the strength, humor, polite ways, willingness to share the little they have, and gentle grace of many: Tom, Jim, Troy, Lester, Bianca, Renalda, Ernesto, Julianna, Monsignor Farrell’s “street people” some younger, women and men, but basically the population our founder had in mind when he created the Center those 25 years ago.
Love Made Visible Products: In 1994, Friendship Center senior staff and the Board of Directors held a retreat to determine what direction the Center should take in the years ahead. Led by a facilitator, the board listed literally tens upon tens of ideas. At the end of the day, these ideas were passed on to the Forward Planning Committee to cull them down and come up with a proposal to present to the full Board. After many meetings and much deliberation, the Committee presented to the Board the idea of starting a business that would exist to provide employment for those who were ready to work but would not be able to handle a job in the private sector. Love Made Visible Products was born. What started as a small idea to be a gift basket business with some of the items in the baskets made by Center’s residents eventually became a gift basket/specialty candy business that has gained name recognition throughout the State of Connecticut.
Over the seven years of its existence, it has provided jobs for 11 people, taking some off welfare, providing income to a few who had no income and taking others off the unemployment rolls. In every way it has been a success except one. While it was never the intent of the Friendship Center to make money from the business, it was important to eventually reach a break-even point. After five years, this was still not happening and the Center was faced with a decision: keep losing the $25,000 - $30,000 each year knowing that good things were happening; drop Love Made Visible Products and put the five current employees out of work; or expand to see if having additional businesses would be a way to get to the break-even point.
The Board of Trustees: In the meantime other events were keeping the Friendship Center Board and staff busy. After the successful completion of the Capital Campaign in 1992, the Center found itself with enough money to start a small Endowment. Initial funds invested with Connecticut National Bank amounted to approximately $275,000. The Board of Director’s Finance Committee oversaw the Endowment.
At the end of 1993 a very generous woman, Alice R. Campbell, left a bequest to the Center of over $128,000. Ms. Campbell had been the principal of a local elementary school. Not having any heirs, she asked her attorney, Brian Gaffney, what good she might do with her money. Attorney Gaffney’s son had done volunteer work at the Center and was impressed with its work. Because of this connection, Attorney Gaffney suggested the Friendship Center receive some of Ms. Campbell’s money. (We never know the connections out there that bring us good things. There was a time when suddenly we started receiving an abundance of foods from a local store. It was years later we found out that the Center had helped a member of the store owner’s family.)
With this added influx into the Endowment, the Center’s Executive Director and Board decided it should tap a Board of Trustees whose sole purpose would be to oversee the Endowment and find ways to make it grow. The Finance Committee of the Board of Directors had enough to do overseeing the Center’s increasing operating budget.
At the 1997 Annual Meeting the By Laws of the organization were changed to incorporate a Board of Trustees. Former presidents and members of the Board of Directors were tapped to serve on this Board.
A Very Generous Gift and the Virginia C. Davis Building: In 1997, the Executive Director received a phone call from Donald W. Davis, former CEO of The Stanley Works. Mr. Davis, as previously mentioned, had chaired the Center’s successful Capital Campaign. Now, he and his wife Virginia were selling their New Britain home and retiring to Martha’s Vineyard and Florida. They wanted to make one last gift to the City and they chose the Friendship Center. In this phone call, Mr. Davis first assured himself the Center had an Endowment Fund the money could be put into. He then said he wanted to donate this money in honor of all the community work his wife had done over the years. He asked if it might be possible to name the Center’s building on 241-249 Arch Street the Virginia C. Davis Friendship Service Center. And then Mr. Davis spoke these words: “The amount of money I’d like to give to the Friendship Center is $500,000!” What a tremendous gift, what a boost to the Endowment Fund and the Friendship Center’s future security. The building at 241-241 Arch Street now proudly bears the name: The Virginia C. Davis Building.
The Miracles: Over the years, Friendship Center staff have been privileged to work with many different people and, sometimes, witness what we refer to as a miracle because of the changes we see. Many who come through our doors leave again to live a more responsible, fulfilling life and this is always exciting to us. However for some the change takes many years and the ultimate result is one we hardly dared even dream about. Here are a few examples:
Miss Esther: Miss Esther was mentioned before. However, at 516 Main Street her pattern was always the same. She would leave at 8:00 am and return at 5:00 pm, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And she would never eat at the Center, even though food was available. In the winter when it was cold and snowing, we would beg her to stay in for the day but she would always refuse. She walked all over town – a petite African American woman very proud and very set in her ways!
It was after we moved to Arch Street that the miracle began. She suddenly decided she could eat with us. And she would allow Donna Bergin, her Service Coordinator, to buy her new clothes. Previously every couple of months we would have a day called “The Changing of the Clothes.” Because Miss Esther refused to buy and would not accept new clothing, there would come a time when new clothes, and underwear, would be essential due to the smell. (She also refused to wash her clothes!) The Changing of the Clothes Day meant Barbara Bacon, our most senior overnight staff member, would sneak into the bathroom and steal Miss Esther’s clothes while she was in the shower. In their place she would leave new clothes that had been purchased for her. When Miss Esther came out of the shower, there would be a terrible ruckus – Esther using language one would never guess she knew. Once in the new building, this all began to change. Esther allowed herself to have new clothes, she began to change her clothes regularly, and she began to sit in our dining room and share meals with the other residents. She also became communicative, allowing staff to greet her in the morning and she would respond when talked to.
For us, this was a true miracle and everyone respected Miss Esther’s seat in the dining room, the same seat each day. As an elderly woman, others gave her much respect. Miss Esther lived with us for 14 years. In 2000, she began to fail and eventually we were able to talk her into going to the doctor. It was discovered she had cancer and it had spread all over her body. Her last weeks were spent in New Britain General Hospital and Walnut Hill Convalescent Home where staff and residents visited her regularly. She died peacefully in her sleep in October 2000 and the Friendship Center had a funeral for her at Carlson Funeral Home with the Rev. Kenneth DuBois officiating. Miss Esther graced us with her presence and the room she lived in for 8 years at 241-249 Arch Street is now known as “Miss Esther’s Room!”
Clarence: Clarence was also mentioned before and he also began to bloom in our new home on Arch Street. Clarence and Miss Esther were about the same age. As they each trusted more, somehow they picked “their chairs” in the dining room, one across from the other. And so, for 8 years Clarence and Miss Esther, the petite African American woman and the gray haired, blue eyed white man, both mentally ill, developed a special relationship. They were like a couple although they never talked to each other. But they watched out for each other nonetheless. Each day they spent many hours sitting and eating across from each other. The last day Esther was at the Friendship Center, as she was being helped from her chair to be taken to the doctor, Clarence stood and said, “Esther don’t forget your bag.” This in itself was a miracle and it was almost as if he knew he would never see her again. He could not allow himself to visit her in the hospital but forever there will be a special part of the Center’s Tomasso Family Community Dining Room that will be remembered as the space these two wonderful people shared together.
Clarence was able to spend many more years at the Friendship Center and “chose” Rachael Davis as the special staff person with whom to relate. Rachael brought new life to Clarence, convincing him to expand his wardrobe from dark blue pants, a dark blue sweatshirt and black work shoes. As time went on, he began to look quite dapper in khaki pants, different colored shirts and sporty brown shoes. Rachael often took him to the New Britain Diner for a “burger”, brought him with her for holidays at her family home and generally gave him a new quality of life. The overnight staff, too, took special care of Clarence, as they had with Miss Esther before him. When he became incontinent, they tried to hide it from the day staff – they didn’t want Clarence to have to leave home. But eventually, we could no longer care for him as he needed and he moved to Walnut Hill Convalescent Home just up the street from 241 Arch.
They staff continued to visit him, Rachael took his wash home and brought it back freshly washed and ironed, and it didn’t take long for the staff at Walnut Hill to fall in love with him too. When he died on March 10, 2010, a service was held for him in South Church’s chapel with The Rev. James Simpson, who had been Clarence’s conservator for many years, officiating. He is buried in Fairview Cemetery near his mother, thanks to the gracious help of Carlson Funeral Home who located his mother’s gravesite for us.
Elpedio: Elpedio came to the Center after the move to Arch Street. He arrived with what we thought was a cough lingering from a cold. However, as the cough persisted medical attention was sought and it was discovered he had throat cancer. An operation was necessary and his voice box was removed. The way in which Elpedio handled his new situation taught us what a very special man he was.
Two days after coming home from the hospital, Elpedio walked with other residents and staff in Foodshare’s Walk Against Hunger, not only walking the 3 miles but also being the first one across the finish line. For a time Elpedio did fine, learning to talk with a mechanical aid and gaining strength. He was full of humor and always helped as much as he could around the building. However, the cancer returned and he grew worse as the weeks passed. The miracle was not that Elpedio survived the cancer, although we all prayed for that. The miracle was Elpedio’s grace in the face of death and the way the staff and other residents gathered together to help so he could stay with us. Hospice was brought into the picture and along with its help, staff and the residents of the Transitional Living Program, where Elpedio lived, worked together so he was able to stay almost to the end of his life.
In the end, for his comfort, he went to the Hospice Facility in Branford. But the Friendship Center family did not desert him – he was a part of the family and both staff and residents alike continued to visit him in Branford until his death 3 weeks later. Elpedio’s strength and grace taught us all and we were better people for having known him.
Grace & Kids: They came to the shelter, she having been abused. They needed a safe place to stay. Grace addressed her issues while we got the kids into school. As security retuned to the family, the kids began to relax and do better in school. Both boys loved basketball and they were hooked up to the NEWBRACC Church League. Volunteers from a local church picked them up at the Center for practices and games. After many months, Grace felt confident enough to go back to work. She obtained a job and, soon afterwards, she found an apartment. The Center’s Beyond Shelter Case Manager worked with her and the kids in getting settled. When there was a problem with the landlord, the case manager was right there to iron out the difficulty and prevent a possible eviction situation.
On a Friendship Center field trip to Six Flags in Agawam, Massachusetts the elder son was apprehended by Six Flags security for allegedly walking out of a store with a hat. The boy explained to Center staff that an adult Center resident, in the store with him, encouraged him to walk out with the hat. He told Staff that he was going to return it. Although the boy had to stay in security until the outing ended, the sympathy and understanding of our Staff helped Mom to deal with the situation. Other staff moms could relate with her initial reaction of “Just let me get my hands on him, I’m going to kill him!” Together they helped a young teenager with tremendous potential learn a lesson he will not soon forget. A small miracle but nonetheless a family back on its feet, still connecting with the Center for support and the kids getting positive strokes for the good things they are doing (and loving reprimand for the foolish mistakes!)
Into the New Century:
Permanent Supportive Housing (Beyond Shelter Connecticut and PEAK): The new century also brought fresh ideas on how to solve the problem of homelessness, with us for far too long. The idea was permanent supportive housing, getting those who are homeless into permanent housing as soon as possible and providing case management support in the housing. The Friendship Center received a grant from the State Department of Social Services to hire a Beyond Shelter case manager. Now called Beyond Shelter Connecticut, the program provides case management services for those who have moved into their own home.
While the concept was great, the grant did not provide any funding to help make the apartments affordable. So the Friendship Center began applying to HUD for Supportive Housing Program funds that would provide vouchers, much like Section 8 vouchers, that would allow the tenant to pay 30% of hers or his income for rent and the Friendship Center would pay the remaining rent using money provided by HUD. The grants also provided some money for supportive services. In order to encourage landlords to work with us to house our population, the Friendship Center decided to pay the total rent to the landlord and then collect the tenant portion though case management. This decision proved to be very successful and we have many good landlords working with us.
We named this HUD funded program PEAK: People Empowered through Achievement and Knowledge. Today 49 households comprised of 90 men, women and children live in apartments scattered throughout the city, retaining their housing and living responsibly with the help of Beyond Shelter and PEAK.
The Vega Building Jobs Program The dilemma still had to be faced. What to do with Love made Visible Products. There was a building down the street, 57-61 Arch Street that was for sale. It was the home of a 10-year old business, The Vintage Shop. Would it be possible for the Friendship Center to buy the building, take over The Vintage Shop, move Love Made Visible Products into the building and re-open the coffee shop previously there? Would this expansion both provide more jobs and be a way to help the one business, Love Made Visible Products, break even by incorporating it into three businesses? Theo Board of Directors held two workshops in May 2000. Administrative staff had put together a business plan and a five-year budget forecast for the project.
This was a huge decision and every possible angle was explored. There was certainly risk – but the potential was great. The Vega Building, owned for the last ten years by Lorraine and William Wixon, is an architectural treasure. An added incentive was the four apartments on the 2nd floor of the building, apartments the Friendship Center could use for permanent, supportive housing options for its clients. It seemed right, the Board of Directors grew excited and on August 1, 2000 the Friendship Service Center of New Britain, Inc. expanded its operation and took ownership of The Vega Building.
The Vega Building: The Vega Society, a Swedish society in the city that existed to assist fellow Swedes as they immigrated to the New World, built the building in 1898. When descendents of the original society learned of the Center’s purchase, they were very excited. They contributed $2000 toward the Friendship Center’s endeavor, so thrilled were they that the building would continue to be used to help those in need.
The Jobs Program: With this purchase, the Center now was able to expand its Jobs Program. With three businesses, more people could be hired. Vintage Antiques, with nine dealers on August 1st, 2000, had 22 dealers by Christmas. Vintage Coffee reopened in October and by the first of the year was offering homemade soup, sandwiches and salads as the daily lunch fare. Four more staff were hired with the potential for more. Two male residents of the Center who never dreamed they would one day have their own apartment moved into apartments on the 2nd floor. Another was rented to a mom and her daughter. Finally having a home meant she could be reunited with her son. The fourth apartment was rented to a grandmother caring for her three pre-school grandchildren.
Residents in the apartments are still very much a part of the Center’s family and each has a Case Manager that continues to assist when needed. Now the Jobs Program employed 8 people, four full-time and four part-time. These staff are regular Friendship Center staff with all the benefits, and responsibilities, of regular employees.
PATH: In 2002, The Friendship Center was chosen by The State Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) as a PATH (Project for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness) site. This program would reach out to those living in the streets, in doorways, under bridges etc. Our nurse of more than 15 years was retiring and a replacement was sought who would take on a dual role, dividing her time between residents “inside” and locating and connecting with new clients “outside”. Following is a story told in her own words that describes the life of one homeless man living on the “outside”.
Do you remember seeing a large, 6’3” man on the streets of New Britain, pushing a grocery cart filled with overstuffed plastic bags, a cooler at one end and a huge umbrella sticking out of the far end? He had an unkempt gray beard and usually wore a hat of some kind. He wore size 15E shoes but preferred boots, which I could only find for him at a special shoe store. He wore size 5XL shirts or jackets and 4XL gloves. Clothing him was a challenge, especially since he wouldn’t wear anything black! It had to be blue, for his own reasons, and in fact blue did accent his blue eyes.
“Big John” had a routine to his day, which changed seasonally. In the heat of the summer you would find him sitting under the overhang of the old Greenfield Grocery Store. I often visited him there, bringing him a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts with 5 sugars. In hot times, he sat on a faded green pillow from some long-ago discarded living room chair, and kept a plastic bag wrapped around his left leg to keep the flies away from the draining ulcers. He would never let me look at his leg. In the winters he sat in a bus stop area by the bank where the sun, when it was out, would warm up the place.
He was a gentle soul. Most everyone knew him. People were, generally, kind to him. They gave him food, clothes, coffee. Some storeowners would allow him to come in and eat, while others made it clear he was not wanted. I tried to get him to come to the Friendship Center’s soup kitchen for lunch, but it was too far to walk on the bad leg. I knew his daily rounds and would catch up with him merely by asking certain shopkeepers if they had seen him. Later in the day I used to see him headed towards a parking garage. In wintertime, I recall seeing him in his dark blue parka, pushing his belongings in the grocery cart, silhouetted against the gray sky. He would settle down, apparently in a stairwell, for the night. I never intruded on him in his “bedroom” but, as I lay snuggled in my warm bed, I would think of him and wonder if he were warm enough.
He had no source of income. I struggled to figure out a way to get SSI for him and did bring out an access worker to speak with him about it. But by law he would have had to see a doctor for a physical and evaluation. There was no way he was going to do this. On occasion I tried to get him to go to the ER to have his leg looked at, but he always refused. But one day last winter, a resident at the Friendship Center talked with him and somehow convinced him to go the ER. His leg was much worse and I think he realized he was in danger of losing it. He could barely walk then, but the good news is that his leg was saved and his health is much improved. Someone at the hospital figured out that I must know him, and they called me. As things turned out, he accepted a shave, new clothes, and medical care. He now has a warm bed, the nursing care he needs, and a safe place to put his belongings at the nursing home.
Now, when I drive or walk around New Britain, I still look to those places where I used to see him. Now they are just empty places. I miss him.
Bicycling Enthusiasms Initiative (BEI): In 2003, the Friendship Center took another step toward homeless prevention in taking BEI under its umbrella. A program started through the New Britain Weed and Seed Program (a Department of Justice grant for inner cities “weeding” out the bad influences of crime and drugs and “seeding” the neighborhood with empowered youth), BEI reached out to at-risk youth through the venue of BMX bikes. The kids learn bike repair and at the same time are mentored by the staff who help with homework, advocate for the youth when there are problems at school and coach the youngsters as they participate in the BMX racing team and club. In addition, BEI joins the Friendship Center’s Jobs Program through opening a bike shop where the kids learn retail etiquette and skills.
The enthusiasm surrounding our new program is as contagious as the kids in the program. They have big smiles, welcoming attitudes and respond to the staff with warmth. However, it is important that we not be fooled into thinking that their smiles are signs of a happy, easy life. Most come from broken homes, move often, help support their families with what they earn, have problems in school and face a life struggling with poverty and all of its ramifications. It is our hope that, through the caring intervention of the staff and the life skills training they receive from the program, they will be pointed in a direction away from homelessness, substance abuse and crime and find a way to grasp the opportunities for a better life when [resented to them.
The community shares our enthusiasm for the program.
Following is an email received from Michael Tomasso recalling his experience with the bike shop. “Linda has a hard to fix favorite bicycle that she bought while living in Italy which was her transportation. Recently it had a major breakdown. I brought it to the Recycle Bicycle Shop and Mark Hoffman took a special interest in repairing it. It reminded me of a lost era of pride and enthusiasm in ones work. I suspect that the group of courteous young men that I encountered at the Shop have a fine mentor and good example in Mark. You probably hear this all the time but thought you’d like to know of our experience.”
The Continuum of Care Philosophy: In 43 years the Friendship Center has come full circle. Monsignor Farrell’s dream that the Center grow and “be of as much help to as many people as possible” continued to guide the staff and Board and continued to bare fruit. With the Jobs Program the Friendship Center now has services for homeless people at every arc in the spectrum: the Assertive Substance Abuse Outreach Program; the Tomasso Family Community Kitchen; Emergency Shelter; Emergency Needs Ministry Homeless Prevention Program; Transitional Housing; Beyond Shelter Case Management; Jobs Program and Permanent Supportive Housing. Being able to reach out to all who come through our doors; accepting each individual where he or she is; offering respect and kindness; food and shelter; case management; and the belief that each individual child of God can, with time and love, grow and change.
Our Work Is Love Made Visible: In the beginning, there was no money to carry out Monsignor Farrell’s dream. Volunteers came and helped. And Monsignor Farrell himself walked the streets of New Britain accepting small donations for his work. One of those volunteers was a man named Evald Johnson. Many years later he came into this author’s office on Arch Street. “I was just driving by,” he said. “I’m so glad you still have the sign in front of the building.” I looked at him quizzically and he explained. “Years ago, I was reading The Prophet by Kahil Gibran and I found the words, ‘Our work is love made visible’ in the section On Work. I knew this was the work we were doing and that phrase became out motto of sorts.”
I was glad to know the genesis of the phrase that had been on our building at 516 Main Street and was carried with us to Arch Street. For in the end, it is the love we share with each individual that allows he or she the freedom to change. And as one miracle turns into another, the love continues to be passed along ………
85 Arch Street
In 2005 the Friendship Center purchased 85 Arch Street, the home of BEI, from the City. The intent was to renovate the 2nd and 3rd floor of the building to provide 12 units of permanent supportive housing and keep the 1sts floor for BEI. Several things happened to change these plans.
The structural engineers, in taking a hard look at 85 Arch, proclaimed that it would cost more to renovate the building than to demolish it and construct a new building.
At the same time, the Friendship Center decided to give up operation of Vintage Antiques in the Vega Building at 57 – 61 Arch Street. The plan became that BEI would move into the space formerly occupied by Vintage Antiques – thus having more space to expand the program.
On November ???, the day before Thanksgiving, 2006 there was a major fire in the Vega Building. BEI lost its new home before it moved in and the tenants that lived in the Vega Building lost their homes as well. The first item on the agenda was to find homes for those who lost theirs. BEI remained at 85 Arch until we could find another place for it to go.
The next major decision was to add the Vega Building to the Housing Project and renovate it to provide additional housing, with the first floor still being reserved for BEI.
And so the Arch Street Housing Project was born. Before it could being to grow and mature, however, the Friendship Center had to address the financial aspects of the project. Two major efforts would solve this problem: a Capital Campaign and an application to CHFA for the state’s Next Steps Program to fund projects that would produce permanent supportive housing throughout the state.
The Capital Campaign: The Capital Campaign was chaired by two couples with longstanding roots in the work of the Friendship Center: Evelyn and Steve Anderson and Linda and Michael Tomasso. We were so fortunate to have these four seasoned people lead our campaign which rose just over $2,000,000! This money was not only imperative for the Arch Street Housing Project to proceed but it also served the very important function of leveraging the $6,000,000 CHFA dollars. With this major financial support in place, the Arch Street Housing Project was ready to move to the next exciting phase, the actual construction and renovation of our two buildings.
Moving Forward: BEI and Demolition of 85 Arch Street
Before 85 Arch Street could be demolished, a new temporary home needed to be found for BEI. We looked to our sister agency, Human Resources Agency, and its neighboring building at 55 (?) Prospect Street, to solve the problem. It was also around this time that Cliff Parker and Mark Hoffman, the founders of BEI, decided it was time for them to move on and let someone else take over. It took the FSC staff about a year to realize it did not have the necessary expertise to run a youth program. With a grant from the American Savings Foundation a consultant was hired to explore the future of BEI. After careful deliberation of both boards, BEI was handed over to the expert hands of OIC, with the promise that when the Vega Building was completed, BEI would find its permanent home on the first floor of the building.
Now it was time for the demolition to begin. On January ??? , a cold but sunny day, we had a demolition party in the city owned parking lot behind 85 Arch. Michael Tomasso and Steve Anderson thanked the Manafort family for donating the labor to demolish the building. Mayor Tim Stewart game fully climbed in the large equipment and took a chunk out of the building. Following the “party” we all adjourned to South Church and enjoyed a reception hosted by the Friends of the Friendship Center.
Friends of the Friendship Center: As the Capital Campaign was successfully progressing, Evelyn Anderson had another idea that would help the Friendship Center. She decided to work toward the formation of an auxiliary that would raise money to help those we serve in ways our budget would not allow. We named the group Friends of the Friendship Center and today it has over 25 active and committed members. They have had several successful fundraisers culminating in September 2010 with their Homelessness is for the Birds Project. They raised close to $20,000 from this project and over the years they have: bought many storage bins so our residents can have a private place to store their clothes; provided pizza parties; sent many kids to summer camp; provided welcome baskets for those moving into permanent housing; wrapped hundreds of gifts for Christmas presents for those we serve and helped with the Walk Against Hunger. Their presence in our midst has been a welcome boost to the morale of staff, residents and tenants alike.
Construction Phase: Beginning with the demolition of 85 Arch Street, we moved into the construction phase of the project. Both buildings were ably designed by Bob Celmer of Kaestle Boos Associates. We made a wise choice of Enterprise Builders, Inc. as our general contractor. Together, they guided us through this exciting time as we watched our dream turning into reality. There are many to thank: Chuck Boos and Scott Ringquist from Kaestle Boos; Keith Cznenicky, Christian Mazzetti, George Czernicki and Mike McNaboe from Enterprise; David Berto our ever present consultant without whom their wouldn’t be Arch Street Housing; the staff from CHFA; and our Board of Directors and Board of Trustees, under the leadership of Chris Trraczyk and Michael Tomasso respectively. But with everyone pulling together the TEAM did it and in May of 2010 59 Arch Street was occupied and 85 followed close behind with occupancy in August, 21 absolutely beautiful apartments now housing 35 men, women and children. All together, with Beyond Shelter and PEAK, the Friendship Center now proudly assists 70 households live independently in our New Britain community, providing permanent housing for 125 formerly homeless adults and children.
The Future Awaits Us: Where will Monsignor Farrell’s dream lead us next? At this point, we do not know. Our Boards and staff are content to nurture the programs we have, providing the very best service we are able. When the time is right and the grace that keeps us connected to the dream of our founder leads us in a direction, we will know that it’s time for the Friendship Center to be on the move again. In the meantime, we are working hard to provide the necessary renovations to the Virginia C. Davis Building, a building that has served us well for almost 20 years. The future awaits. Where it will lead is still a mystery – yet we know it will involve the love that our work will make visible.
Ellen Perkins Simpson Spring 2011