Wild accusations and ongoing legal disputes are no deterrents for over 30 organizations and churches that volunteer their time at Dorothy Day Hospitality House.
The recent zoning dispute that resulted in a cease-and-desist order against Dorothy Day has prompted a number of the shelter’s opponents to take to the op-ed section of Newstimes with disparaging comments referring to the homeless as “cockroaches and degenerates.”
Dorothy Day has been accused of allowing its guests to disrupt the neighborhood and litter the streets with paraphernalia. Opponents argue that the soup kitchen attracts the homeless from neighboring towns, thus increasing the homeless population in Danbury. Dorothy Day’s healthy financial balance of $750,000 is also scrutinized by opponents who suggest the shelter use the funds to move to a commercial location.
Joe Simon, treasurer at the Dorothy Day, proudly defends the program’s volunteers and practices. Simon said Dorothy Day volunteers have talked about moving the location, but the current location provides better access for their guests. In addition, Dorothy Day’s funding is put to better use through a program called Off The Streets, which placed over 100 homeless people into permanent housing last year.
All kitchen and shelter guests must sign a pledge to follow the rules. No person is admitted under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and guests are not permitted to congregate on Spring Street. Guests who do not follow the rules are banned from the kitchen and shelter.
According to the Point in Time Count conducted by Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, Danbury’s homeless population has steadily decreased since 2014. In 2016, there were 125 homeless people in the Danbury area, 176 in 2015, and 181 in 2014. Of the 125 homeless in 2016, 98 were single adults, 11 were adults with families, and 16 were children. 27 suffered from mental illness, 7 had substance abuse issues, and 16 were domestic abuse survivors.
Simon encouraged anybody who wants to better understand the homeless population to come in and volunteer. He said many people stereotype the homeless as being isolated and anti-social. People who are homeless don’t have a lot of physical possessions, or a house to go back to at the end of the day so it’s relationships with other people that are most important.
“And we try to reinforce that here by trying to be as personal as possible. One of the ways we do that is the way we serve meals in the kitchen. We don’t have people go through a cafeteria line. People come in for a meal, they sit down, and we wait on them,” said Simon.
“It’s the little things, we try to treat people as individuals, as people, and we think that really makes a difference. They are individuals and not faceless things. There is no one reason why people become homeless, and there is no one kind of homeless person.”
James Russell has been volunteering at Dorothy Day’s soup kitchen one Sunday every month for 25 years. Russel said many believe that people who come to soup kitchens are either drug addicts, illegal immigrants or people with mental issues.
“Some of this is true, but it doesn’t apply to everyone. It’s my belief that it’s not their fault that they’re on the street. Difficult times call for extraordinary measures,” said Russell.
“The people here are good, kind-hearted people, and they’re very grateful. I don’t think in terms of stereotypes. A homeless person is my neighbor.”
Pete Lavelle is a volunteer from St. Peter’s Church in Danbury. He’s been volunteering at Dorothy Day for 15 years.
“People think that everybody who comes here is homeless, but they’re not. A lot of people work, but they just can’t make ends meat. There’s retired people who don’t have enough money to make it through the month,” said Lavelle.
“We’re helping people get through life who don’t have enough to do that. I’m not sure how you can complain about that.”