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Homeless Norwalker Finds That Hope Works

NORWALK, Conn. -- Jonathan Matthews sums up life at the Open Door Shelter with a single phrase: "nothing to talk about." Matthews, 61, used to have his own painting business, but has lived at the shelter for more than two years. He has seen it change since Bill Okwuosa became director.

"It used to be basically a flop house," he said. "It's not that anymore. ... In that regard, huge improvement, but again, it's not something to talk about."

Matthews is looking forward to getting an apartment, and if he does, he will have the Hope Works program and the Norwalk Parking Authority to thank.

A native of Jamaica, Matthews has been an intern with the authority since early June. Friday he will be one of the first seven graduates of Hope Works, a new program that helps homeless people transition back into the economy and community. "Hope Works participants go through a nine-month program working on job readiness skills such as computer literacy, interviewing, teamwork and budgeting," program manager Denisse Guzman said in a statement. "The culmination is the 12-week internship program, paid through Hope Works. Thanks to the Norwalk Parking Authority, we have been able to place three of our seven interns."

Matthews hopes to land a permanent job with the authority when he graduates, but he hasn't heard yet. He said Hope Works sharpens the job seekers' skills. Some are afraid of computers, he said, which makes it difficult to apply for jobs online. They've "lost their hunting skills," he said.

He appreciated the class on "getting along with people in the workplace." "Rules change from what it was 25 to 30 years ago," he said. "Now you have to take into consideration what you say to people.

So we have an idea as to how to go about behaving in the workplace. It comes back to, you can't control what the other person does or says, but certainly you can control what you say."

Matthews is proud of himself and of his classmates. "A lot of people didn't think that we were going to be able to graduate, didn't think we had what it takes to graduate, but we proved them wrong," he said.

He began his own painting business in the late 1980s and expected to continue with it into his senior years. But work dwindled, his home went into foreclosure and his family moved away to live with another family. Matthews stayed in Norwalk, selling water bottles on the street for more than a year rather than accepting unemployment payments.

If he gets the job he's hoping for, he'll explore what he sees as a new niche: writing and public speaking. "Whatever other people say about homelessness, they normally don't know anything about it," he said. "Because of my experience, I know for a fact that the only thing that is going to change that situation is that people be able work, that people be able to find accommodations, that people be able to feed themselves."

Have you considered what you would do if you lost your job and became homeless?

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