The mysterious group puts families first

Two-year-old Cory runs through the foliage in his backyard with his parents, Patrick Lipico and Julie Oliver, at their home in Pawcatuck.

“That was then, that is now” is a phrase that gets asked a lot.

For Julie Oliver, words describe her tumbling life.

Then – homeless. She left her job. She lives in a tent at Burlingame State Park & ​​Campground with her boyfriend Patrick and their 2-year-old son, Cory. Feeling helpless and hopeless.

Now – sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Pawcatuck with Patrick and Korey. Working two part-time jobs. He has money saved for the approaching end of seasonal work. happy optimist.

So what made the difference? What helped her cross a chasm as wide as Connecticut? In one word: mash. The Mysterious Zone Refuge and Hospitality, the organization whose motto is “End Family Homelessness, One Family at a Time.”

“Every January, a census of homeless families is taken in the area, a snapshot of homelessness,” says Dennis Collins, executive director of MASH. “Between 2010 and 2014, the numbers were pretty much flat. Typically, there are approximately 50 families at night in a transitional shelter or shelter.”

This year, a Point-in-Time (PIT) survey counted Julie Oliver and her family among 56 families – 149 individuals, including 93 children – in the county of New London who were in need of shelter. For the Oliver family, the decline has been escalating for months.

“I guess a little bit of a back story about that…” Oliver says over a cup of coffee. “I had seasonal work, and in the winter we were very late paying our bills and the landlords we lived in were about to start the eviction. They weren’t bad people, the landlords….”

Julie Oliver had two waitressing jobs at the time, since now–60 to 70 hours a week–earning, she says, “five dollars and a change” an hour, well below minimum wage; If a customer gave only 5% or none at all, she was in trouble.

But her long hours were not enough. Oliver and her boyfriend were months late paying the small rent of $550, a room with a kitchenette and bathroom — “almost from there to there,” she says, referring to a 10-foot-tall counter space. Instead of waiting to be kicked out, they left, drifting from night to night, from hotel to hotel, friend’s couch to friend’s couch. And finally the garden: the three in a four-person tent, sleeping on an air mattress. She and Patrick are, she says, “outdoors,” so camping last summer wasn’t a bad thing. Not at first anyway.

“I ran out of money,” Oliver says. “I felt so helpless. I didn’t know what to do. So I called 2-1-1 (State Crisis Line), and they referred me to Mash.”

Oliver spoke with social worker Marilyn Pinker but was initially reluctant to seek help. When Pinker asked what the family lodging search was like, Oliver recalls, “I said, ‘We’re camping,'” and Marilyn said, ‘You’re ok with that? And I said, “Yeah, it’s kind of like a vacation.”

But when Pinker called back a few hours later with a makeshift shelter offer, Oliver said, “I was so excited, so relieved. When I went to meet her, I was an hour early.”

Together they visited the shelter, a two-story duplex in a residential section of Groton. “It was like the Taj Mahal,” Oliver says. “It had everything: beds, sheets, blankets, pots, utensils, a sofa to sit on. They had a bed for Corey. They even had a highchair for him. It’s a beautiful home.”

The family moved into this beautiful home, and after 27 days, they moved into their own $750-a-month apartment in Pawcatuck. MASH Housing Coordinator Noreen Zubnik found the place for them; MASH covered the costs of their relocation.

And that – permanent housing for families – is the true goal of the Agency.

“We need to reduce the time the family spends in the shelter,” Collins says. Studies have shown that homeless children are more likely to become homeless adults.

Short-term assistance can often help stabilize vulnerable families while restoring their financial strength: rent support. Facilities support. Assistance in finding temporary housing. Resume writing. Budget advice. Support that can reduce stress and anxiety from homelessness.

“It’s really hard for them when they’re in a shelter,” says Cathy Keeler, office manager and director of development at MASH. “We rely on community support. We have three sources of income: our annual appeal (December), government funding and local grants. We also have an event in the spring: “May Day for MASH” at the seaport. May-day, as in “Help,” but Also on May 1.

Collins says the organization gets an annual budget of about $300,000 — and a little help from its friends. The church donates its office space, behind Union Baptist Church in Sufi, and businesses in the area sometimes collect donations. Mystic Boathouse raised about $1,400 for MASH, and Coogan & Gildersleeve Hardware hosts an annual event that brings in about $5,000 annually.

The quest to prevent homelessness is a local and national priority.

Five years ago, President Obama signed into law HEARTH, the Homeless Emergency and Rapid Housing Transition Act of 2009. His premise: No one should be homeless for more than 30 days. Its mission: to reduce homelessness and reduce the frequency of homelessness.

“We had a lot of success; we were the first agency in the area to reduce the recidivism rate,” Collins says. “What we haven’t been able to do is reduce demand. . . What can really change things in this field is affordable housing in the truest sense: housing that people on minimum wages can afford.”

On the affordable housing scale, Connecticut scores poorly. The state has the sixth highest rent costs in the United States according to the MASH Newsletter for Fall 2014, “Fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New London County is $1,035. If a worker were to spend no more than the standard 30% of their income on housing, they would have to make an hourly wage of $19.90 (equivalent to 2.3 full-time minimum wage jobs). “

And high rents are just one of the three biggest obstacles facing low-income workers.

Second: seasonal jobs. As tourist attractions, New London and its surrounding cities fill with work in warm weather, annually driving workers into unemployment as the snow and hail approach. Full-time employment with benefits is as common as four-leaf clover. In 2013, New London County’s average unemployment rate was near 10%, well above the state average of 7.8%.

Third: Poor public transportation, which makes owning a car almost necessary – something not feasible for families who are unable to purchase and maintain a car.

“What bothers us is the start of a downward spiral for families living on the edge of the cliff,” says Keeler.

Julie Oliver pays for the 2005 Ford Taurus she needs to move into her seasonal part-time jobs. This makes it impossible for Patrick to use the car, even if his job search is successful. In the past, Oliver says, he did landscaping, washing dishes, and a gas station. She says he occasionally gets gigs that sing and plays guitar, but that his primary job at the moment is taking care of Cory.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better father for my son,” she says. “He is a loving, giving, and caring person. I have the most amazing friend.”

Together, they have faced the stigma of homelessness. “You feel very judged,” Oliver says. “People feel that if you are homeless or struggling to find work, you are lazy or do drugs. That is just not the case.”

Although substance abuse and mental illness can indeed lead to homelessness, many families lose their homes after one financial crisis: a job loss, a divorce, an unexpected medical bill. Shelter help, Collins says, “is not about people getting a handout. People are struggling to survive.”

As the days turn into winter, Oliver admits she’s feeling nervous — one job ends on December 1 and another is already starting to slow down — but looks forward with hope. MASH helped the couple sign up for heating assistance, and helped them plan a budget. Their bills are paid. They have money saved to cover the lean months. “So I don’t hold my head and say, ‘What now?'” says Oliver. “

Now, she can reflect on the past and remember the bad days. “I was more desperate than ever, so I swallowed my pride and made that call. It was the best thing I ever did. We’re in a great place now, and that’s because mash. We’re better than we’ve ever been…they were our advocates.” They believed in us. They trusted us. They didn’t just look at a piece of paper and say, “They’re that kind of people.”

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