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Area's Homeless Rates Rise as Economy Sinks

This is the first of a two-part series on the growing number of homeless people in Fairfield County. Look for Part 2 on Wednesday.

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – With his long grayish, white beard and only a denim jacket and cap to keep his slight frame and head warm, Eric Schulof could pass for an out-of-work Santa Claus or down-on-his luck Father Time.

But Schulof, 61, who sat down recently at a long table with other homeless men and women for a lunch of potato salad and apple pie at the Open Door Shelter in Norwalk, is all too real. He is among the 33,000 homeless people in Connecticut – nearly half of whom are children.

Advocates for the homeless say those numbers are growing. Even along affluent Fairfield County’s “Gold Coast,” the stagnant economy and diminishing social services are contributing to growing numbers of people without homes.

“They give you good food here, and I could have had more than just potato salad, but this is all I really want today,” said Schulof, who has been going for meals and periodic stays at the Merritt Street homeless shelter for more than a decade.

While eating, Schulof puts down a small book of poetry, “Goethe’s Faust,” as he describes how his descent into drug and alcohol addiction resulted in hepatitis and double pneumonia that nearly killed him a few years ago.

“I used to work in bookstores and was able to get by, but the last 10 years have been very rough,” Schulof said. “After I got sick, I had to go on disability, and I had no place to live. At least now I have a room nearby, but it’s a good thing I was able to stay here at different times or I don’t know if I would even be alive. I still come to eat here a few times a week.”

But for who have fallen into a cycle of drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness is only part of the story. The story also often involves increasing numbers of homeless people who are victims of the economic downturn, according to Bill Okwuosa, who 10 months ago became executive director at the Open Door Shelter.

Some, such as Joanne S., a substitute teacher and former accountant, are examples of the growing numbers of educated professionals who are homeless as a result of the recession or because a spouse or family member died or left them without a place to live.

“I have been here a few months, but I’m determined to get out of here and back to my real life,” said Joanne, who declined to give her last name. “I became homeless because my drinking got out of hand, and I lost my job. I am an example that this can happen to anybody. You think you’re getting by, and all of a sudden you’re a poor person with nowhere to go.”

State and national studies back that up. According to the January 2011 Point-in-Time Study from the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, chronic homelessness has increased 26 percent among adults without children. Among homeless adults sleeping in places unintended for habitation, Connecticut has seen a 37 percent increase in chronic homelessness since 2009.

And U.S. Census Bureau data shows a big increase in the poverty rate in Fairfield County – at 9.4 percent in 2010, up from 8.3 percent the previous year. Homeless advocates say that corresponding and sustained increases in homelessness are likely to continue.

“We used to say, we’re all just one paycheck away from being homeless,” said Okwuosa, a former prison guard. He learned that many of the criminals he got to know on that job started out being homeless and turned to crime in a desperate attempt to survive.

“But now, I say, people are just one situation or life change – losing a job, a divorce, a family crisis — from being homeless. People don’t think it can happen to them. But it can.”

Next: Stories of homeless people and the desperate measures they take to survive.

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