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Norwalk Shelter Struggles to Fit All the Homeless

NORWALK, Conn. – Updated, 11:12 a.m., Jan. 27. Bill Okwuosa left work to head home Thursday, his heart hardened and prepared to do the worst – or so he thought.

The director of Norwalk's Open Door Shelter had decided to turn people away because of overcrowding. But he couldn't do it.

"I just got in the car to leave and come home, and I'm noticing there's quite a few people outside the shelter that can't get in because we are beyond our capacity. And I told you I was going to stop letting them come in," Okwuosa said in a voicemail. "I can't do it. I guess I'm a big soft teddy bear. I can't go home and sleep in my comfortable bed and know there are people out in the rain and the freezing cold. I can't do it."

Okwuosa had expressed frustration Wednesday at the news conference to announce the Greater Norwalk Alliance to Prevent and End Homelessness, as he felt it did not address the immediate need. "Help the ones that are in the shelter and then that's how you start to help the problem," he said. "If you keep the ones that are in the shelter without giving us the money and the services to run it, there's still going to be homelessness. Where are they going to go?"

Mayor Richard Moccia and Adam Bovlinsky, director of the Human Relations department, said at the news conference that the goal was to make shelters unnecessary. Okwuosa said that would be great. But "charity begins at home," he said, and it's important to help the people who are in the shelter now.

"We need funding so we can get them transitional housing, rental assistance," he said. "We need funding so we can get them mental health and substance abuse training. We need to get them unemployment services. We have the staffing but we don't have the money to keep them. Right now we're suffering financially and right now the shelter is carrying the burden. We're overpopulated."

The plan outlined by the alliance includes all of those things as well as the participation of Continuum of Care. Bovlinsky called the organization "the silent folks in the background of our community," bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Okwuosa said planning ahead is fine, but, "The ones you have now, what are you doing to help them? We're not really getting that much support from the city."

The shelter has been overcrowded for months, since it became colder. In previous years, "overflow" homeless were sent to spend the night at an East Norwalk church. But Okwuosa said that arrangement ended in April because of the expense of transportation and staffing in these hard times: $60,000 a year, a sum the strapped shelter cannot make. Staff members have been providing cots for people to sleep in the shelter's cafeteria. People are sleeping in chairs. But Okwuosa said those people have begun to complain, because it is difficult to sleep with so many people in close proximity.

"I'm going to start because I'm going to be fined by the fire department, due to double occupancy," Okwuosa said Wednesday. "I'm going to start telling people we're full. Tonight. It has to be some day. It's not because of this conference, just the total ball park, the reason it has to stop."

The shelter had opportunities to expand but missed them, Moccia said. "They were turned down by zoning two years ago," he said. "They should have reapplied to get a bigger facility and move forward with their board. They're doing a lot of good things, but the United Way doesn't have a building and the city doesn't have a building so that's why we're trying to develop plans. But in the meantime, their board has to make arrangements and hopefully reach out into the community and find some additional spaces."

The overcrowding is "exactly why we put the plan together. Shelters are being overwhelmed," Moccia said.

Okwuosa said shelter staff turned people away Wednesday night. On Thursday, he had a change of heart. "We're going to put them in the hallway, on the chairs," he said. "The least I can do is give them somewhere to sit through the night. That's what my intentions were, but it's a double-edged sword for me. I'm not happy, but I can sleep tonight knowing that I let them in."

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