The local faces of homelessness

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Region - posted Mon., Feb. 21, 2011
Julio Roldan at the Windham Region No Freeze Hospitality Center on a recent Sunday. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Julio Roldan at the Windham Region No Freeze Hospitality Center on a recent Sunday. Photos by Melanie Savage.

Julio Roldan was 13 years old when he came to Connecticut from Puerto Rico. A poorly-supervised kid in an unfamiliar area, and attempting to communicate in an unfamiliar language, he was easily drawn into a world of alcohol and drugs. Now 44, Roldan is currently a guest at the Windham Region No Freeze Hospitality Center in Willimantic. He was one of several people who appeared on Feb. 18 at the First Congregational Church in Mansfield as part of an event called “Putting a Face on Homelessness.”

“We have a long-standing relationship with the shelter,” said Ann Plumley, pastor of the church.

“The church has always been very supportive,” said Leigh Duffy, director of the No Freeze shelter. “They asked me to come and talk about the shelter. I figured I’d bring some people along to talk about their experiences. People don’t always understand how people become homeless, especially in their own hometown.”

“My name is Julio. I come from Puerto Rico,” said Roldan, standing in front of an informal gathering after a pot-luck dinner in the church’s fellowship hall. Roldan went on to talk about his experiences with homelessness, which for him have stretched to almost 11 years. They include stints in Hartford, Philadelphia and other urban areas. He talked of an attack by another man which left him with permanent damage to his face and leg. He showed the fingers of his right hand, which are currently blackened by frostbite, complicated by diabetes. He shared his struggles with “hardcore alcohol and drug use,” and his recent milestone of nine months of sobriety.

“I’ve had some hard times in this life,” said Roldan. “Why did God put me in this world? Maybe it’s because he wants me to help other people.” Roldan dreams of obtaining his GED, and possibly studying to become a social worker. “I see a lot of people suffer,” he said. “I want to be the most in my life for people that need me. The only thing I need is an opportunity to open my wings.”

Francisco Fernandez is currently a staff member at the shelter. An intelligent, soft-spoken guy, he is goes by the nickname Cisco. Fernandez experienced a period of homelessness that lasted for almost two years in the Hartford/East Hartford/Manchester areas. “Homelessness really sucks at first,” he said. “But you come to a point of acceptance and you just deal with it. I’m sure everyone deals with homelessness in a different way. For me, I kept moving.”

Fernandez learned to pick his campsites carefully, “so you don’t get kicked out in the middle of the night,” he said. He learned that homelessness had its bright spots, if you knew where to look. “I had a lot of good times,” said Fernandez. “The sunsets were beautiful. There was camaraderie.” Friday nights, Fernandez and his friends would often gather around a campfire to share small talk, food and beer. It was one such night that started him on the path to change.

“There was this guy, Frank, who was a veteran,” said Fernandez. “Me and the other guys would make fun of him.” Frank was diagnosed with an inflamed liver and given five to six months to live. “One Friday, we’re around the campfire and we realize Frank is missing again,” said Fernandez. He and a friend went looking for Frank, and found his body in the back of an abandoned trailer. “Me and Matthew could tell right away by the smell,” said Fernandez. “There was this look of pain on Frank’s face that I’ll never forget. That is not the way to go. Alone, in the dark, in the back of a trailer. That was what got me started. Baby steps.”

Howard Warrender is another current guest of the No Freeze Shelter. He didn’t want to stand up and talk, but was willing to answer any questions posed by the crowd. Howard said that on a typical day, he spends a lot of time looking for work. The nearby Connecticut Works office and the local libraries provide opportunities for job searches. He is also involved in the Alternative to Incarceration program, which takes up some of his time. He said that the key for him was making and keeping connections. “I don’t have any family in the area,” said Warrender. “You need the support from the connections you make in the community.”

The Windham Region No Freeze Hospitality Center is located at 1110 Main St. in Willimantic. It is a large room cordoned off by partitions, with bunk beds, art on the walls and a television set. On a recent Sunday evening, the atmosphere was relaxed, and the lighting was turned low and soothing. The hours of operation are generally 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Total guests for January of 2011 was 64 (53 males and 11 females). Total guests through January for the season was 105, representing a 10-percent increase from January of 2010. For more information, call the center at 860-450-1346.

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