Mayor ‘comes to grips’ with Hamden poverty

By on March 4, 2004

A man who has been out of work for a long period of time trains to be a United Parcel Service (UPS) driver. In order to obtain the job he must acquire a UPS license. However, because of his long-term unemployment he cannot afford to take the test to receive the license.

This type of story is not uncommon as more Hamden residents are dropping below the poverty level. Yet this particular situation has a fairy-tale ending. Someone gave this man the money to take the test in order to help him become employed, and now he is an independent, productive member of Hamden society.

Who was the fairy godmother? It was not a Hamden individual placing pity money in the driver’s hand-out can. It was not through the additional services of New Haven’s Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen. It was not even Hamden’s one and only soup kitchen at St. Ann’s Church on Dixwell Avenue.

Instead, it was Hamden’s own town government that made employment possible for this man.

“If you think about it, there are a lot of different ways in which we are helping poor folks. It’s just not all boxed up neatly,” Mayor Carl Amento said.

Although Quinnipiac University Political Science Professor Scott McLean recently said Hamden’s leadership could not “come to grips” with the fact that it was a city with city social problems, in an interview in his office, Amento pointed to the town’s limited resources.

“The will to help these residents is there, but the resources are not. I think what McLean isn’t realizing is the constraints we have to come to grips with,” he said.

These constraints begin with recent Connecticut budget cuts. Amento said Hamden receives 20 percent less in state revenue than Wallingford, which is a much richer town.

“It’s a crazy system based on poverty wealth index and we’re supposed to get $6 million more each year, almost 10 percent of the budget,” Amento said.

He believes Hamden is not given its full 10 percent because of the town’s large increase in population.

“They’ve capped [how much we get in revenue] at 6 percent growth each year and we’re going above that,” he said.

In fact, according to Census analysis, Hamden’s population has grown at least 8.5 percent in the last ten years, which Amento said is a much larger percentage than surrounding cities and towns.

“So we’ve got growth, we’ve got increased poverty, we’ve gotten poorer as an average income and the state aid hasn’t been there to compensate with that,” Amento said. “So in response to [McLean]: easier said than done.”

As a result of all these budget constraints, not only has the mayor been unable to hire new community service workers, he said he has “had to have the same staff work harder,” and also deals with the fact that there is no human services director to coordinate community service for these residents.

“That’s not a very good way to [help the situation], but that’s what we’re forced to do with limited resources,” Amento added.

However, as the success story of the UPS driver illustrates, some of Hamden’s initiatives do work.

“I think we’re doing a pretty good job in helping those who need help,” Amento said “No one is falling between the cracks.”

But McLean would beg to differ.

“With a cocktail of different programs in [Hamden] people are able to get jobs. It’s the fact that they have full time jobs and yet are still poor that is the issue,” he said.

However, Jackie Downing, chief deputy administrative officer, said there are many social service programs available for the underprivileged that do not only involve obtaining a job.

“We have a human needs fund that will replace a door, a water heater, as well as helping the UPS driver . . . a variety of things for people who have a genuine need,” Downing said.

In addition, there are transportation services, youth services, Meals on Wheels, and as part of community development, a senior housing complex, which Amento said provides telephone reassurance.

“A woman in her 80’s goes into work at the Miller Center every day and calls elderly folks to make sure they’re okay,” he said.

There is even a first-time home buyer’s assistance program in progress. Amento said the program allows low-income residents to buy a home even if they cannot afford the down payment.

“Ultimately, they get $4 on their down payment for every $1 they actually have,” he said.

Despite budget cuts and the lack of an adequate staff, Amento recognizes it is the determination of the existing staff that creates the community service aid available in Hamden.

“We get by with the remarkably small stuff,” Amento said. “We have a very dedicated staff, but very small departments. We only have four people in community services, one person in elderly services, three outreach programs, and three people in youth services. But these people work very hard and have at least 20 years of experienced leadership.”

Despite the variety of programs available, both McLean and Father Kenneth Bonadies, founder of St. Ann’s Soup Kitchen, confirm that because of the limited resources available in Hamden, many underprivileged residents go to New Haven for aid.

While McLean said this had to do with Hamden’s unwillingness to address the situation, Amento again blames a lack of state funds.

“New Haven has a huge federal system. They get 10 times more federal assistance than we get and they’re only twice our size,” the mayor said. “They have a whole service network set up and most of it is federally funded and some of it is state funded. They are not under the same constraints as we are.”

Downing hopes new town programming will keep residents in Hamden.

“Casey’s Closet should be getting back up and running soon, which provides professional clothes for the underprivileged,” she said.

She adds that another town program, the Keefe Center, recently renovated their food bank to be brighter and more convenient for residents to pick up a free bag of balanced foods.

“Anyone who comes in the door for a food basket isn’t just handed food and let go out the door. They are taken in as a client,” Downing said. “If someone needs food there are probably other problems in the home that they could use local resources for.”

And while McLean pointed out that the town offers no housing for those evicted from their homes, Amento said plans are in the works for such shelters.

“We’ve been working on getting a lead-safe shelter, and transitional housing is something being considered,” he said.

The town is also working toward more permanent solutions.

“We also have an affordable housing initiative that will be launched between Hamden Housing Authority and Human Services Commission,” Downing said with excitement in her voice. “They are working together to bring in a non-profit, perhaps church-based organization, to help us build affordable housing,” Downing adds.

With his “make-do-with-what-we-have” attitude, Mayor Amento proves Hamden has “come to grips” with its poverty problem. And although an over-all solution is not in the horizon, little steps taken by the town may force Connecticut to open its eyes and finally see that the large number of working poor citizens will not just simply disappear beneath the cracks.


About Jenn Bartlett