It's one o'clock and the doors at the Open Door shelter in South Norwalk, Conn. opened for lunch.
White, African-American, Latino - dozens of people, many of them regulars, briskly walked inside. They anticipated a square meal. On the menu on that day was baked ham and macaroni salad. The shelter serves three free meals a day.
Lydia Tucker, 56, was there. She actually is one of about 100 people who stays at the shelter. Before this, Tucker said she and her two children had to shuffle from hotel to hotel, never sure if they'd have enough money to pay for the charges. After securing a place for her children to sleep, Tucker herself often wound up sleeping in her car. She says the fear was ever-present.
"It was a nightmare," Tucker said. "You have to wait and see how much money you could get, and if you could get enough money to eat. You had to wrack your mind about think about how you're going to survive one day to the next," she said.
Tucker's path to homelessness was rapid and not that unusual. She lost her job driving bus, then got behind on rent and lost her apartment. She had counted on the city's anti-poverty agency Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now for help. But a bridge program that offered people two months' rental assistance dried up before Tucker could tap into it. It was one of several programs that abruptly halted because of NEON's financial troubles last year. Last year, the state Department of Social Services also put NEON on notice as an "agency in risk" and subsequently, state and federal funding was pulled. There were also staff layoffs and late salary checks. NEON filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection last month, with $4 million in debts.
"When something like that happens, all the funds that were supporting [NEON] go away," said Jeanette Archer-Simons, the interim executive director of Open Door. She said the community has feared what happens if the funding did not make it back to Norwalk. "We have such a great need," she said.
The number of Norwalk residents below the poverty line is close to the statewide percentage of 10 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics from 2008-12. But of those in need, Norwalk stands out. More than 40 percent of adults in the city who stay in a shelter or in transitional housing are chronically homeless. That's according to a recent finding by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. Overall, demand for beds also shot up by nearly 30 percent in just the last year. One cause could be the sudden nature NEON shuttered its programs. Archer-Simons says that contributed to a lot of instability among the city's poor, including at a halfway house run by NEON.
"Some [of those] folks went back to prison," she said. "Some folks came down to our shelter until they found other housing. And I suspect there are even more people who didn't know what to do because they didn't know where to go."
In the meantime, community non-profits like Open Door have tried to fill in the gaps in services. For example, the Norwalk Housing Authority took over the early childhood development program Head Start. Action for Bridgeport Community Development, Inc. took over NEON's energy assistance program. The Community Action Agency of Western Connecticut is now handling a case worker program for Latino communities in Norwalk and Stamford. They and others say they intend to secure the state and federal contracts to run the programs on a permanent basis, even after a new community action agency in the area is formed.
Pastor Lindsay Curtis of Grace Baptist Church in Norwalk, Conn. isn't surprised. He and Stamford pastor Tommie Jackson are laying groundwork for another community action agency, to be called Community Action Norwalk, or CAN. Curtis believes there's still a need for a centralized place for the city's social services safety net. Yet, he's aware he and Jackson, or anyone for that matter, are up against the negative perception of anti-poverty agencies that grew with NEON's demise.
"You're never going to please everyone," Curtis said. "But what we can do is to basically be transparent and say: Here's what was done and here's the repercussions. And we don't plan on making those same mistakes."
Curtis said the group plans to have a larger, more inclusive board with 21 members. All community action agencies are required to have a tripartate board comprised of elected officials, non-profit leaders and representatives from the low-income community. Curtis also said they will continue to push the State's Attorney's office for some declaration regarding allegations of financial wrongdoing by former NEON leaders.
Whether or not Curtis and Jackson's attempt to start a new agency will be successful depends on the DSS. It will make a final decision on all applications. Curtis said he expects a request for proposals to be issued in early fall.
For anti-poverty advocates, a new agency can't come soon enough.