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Church Questions Norwalk Shelter's 'Open Door'

NORWALK, Conn. – The Open Door Shelter "smells better," according to Roosevelt Wright, who has been there "off and on" for five years. It's also cleaner. "It really has changed tremendously," he said.

But another thing changed recently: St. Matthew's Church stopped donating food to the shelter. Monsignor Walter C. Orlowski said volunteers noticed fewer people at its once a month lunches. Food was being frozen because fewer people were eating. The church pastor said he has the impression that the poor and homeless are staying away from the shelter because of the rules initiated by Bill Okwuosa, director of the shelter since last February .

"My concern is that we feed the poor and the hungry," Orlowski said. "We just don't understand why we've gone from 150 to 170 down to 40 or 50 people."

Orlowski said breathalyzer tests and ID checks are scaring people away. Okwuosa said it's a misunderstanding. "The perception that the community has is that there's discrimination going on," he said. "That the shelter is discriminating, that a person cannot eat if they've been drinking. Which defeats my ethical belief as a clinical person — I don't do that!"

Okwuosa agreed fewer people have been at the shelter, but they're coming back now with the change of weather. Wright told the same story: "I would say they would be (coming back), it's going to get colder."

The shelter was full, the homeless man said. "I don't think there's less people, the dorm is full. Plus there's people sleeping on the floor out here," Wright said, referring to the use of the common area as a bedroom for "overflow."

Okwuosa said he is looking for alternatives to people sleeping on the floor. He is mandated by law to check a person's alcohol level if they seem intoxicated, to prevent blood poisoning, he said. More routine breathalyzer tests have been discontinued, in part because the sensor on the machine was wearing out quickly and it's expensive to replace. Instead, staff has been trained by Norwalk police officers to do field sobriety tests.

Checking to see whether people are drinking is part of getting them help, Okwuosa said. "I want all of them to come in here to give them help, to give them food for the stomach and the mind, which is the AA service that we have here," he said.

A staff member said Tuesday night that he didn't think breathalyzer tests are necessary anymore because the three-times-a-week Alcoholic Anonymous meetings are helping people.

Orlowski said church members are open to checking on the shelter again to re-evaluate the situation, but for now they're looking for other ways to help South Norwalk's poor. "I know rules have changed and again I'm not going to criticize," he said. "My concern is the Gospel calls me to feed the hungry and comfort the poor. We certainly seek to get people help, but I don't think we turn people away because they refuse the help."

"No, we feed them," Okwuosa said. "I want them to come in. ... They tell stories, but it's not true. They're going to say, 'If you drink you can't come in here.'"

He was frustrated, and said, "When it was a flophouse people were complaining: 'It's a flophouse, nobody's doing nothing here.' Now we have changed it, into more of a program, and they're still complaining."

Mayor Richard Moccia offered his support. "There were complaints that the rules were not enforced enough, and there was not a consistency of enforcement there," he said. "I don't want to call it a flophouse, I think the people running it had good intentions. I think they needed to move more toward programs and enforcing rules, and that is what Bill is doing."

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