This piece focuses on the humanness of Human Services with a sprinkling of policy for good measure. What does it take to truly support each other? Join staff at Madonna Place for a compelling look at the perils and possibilities of taking care of people amidst policy failures and tight budgets. Sue Murphy from the New London Human Service Network is also featured.
Aired on WPKN’s Mic Check on 4/2/23
Luan Cadahia: [00:00:00] There’s a there’s a quote that I even have tattooed on my arm. Lift as you rise by Bonang Mohale. It’s this concept of when you lift up people in your community, you also rise. You better and you edify the entire community.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:00:19] Hello beautiful WPKN and listeners, I’m Isabelle Barbour. I’d like to welcome you to WPKN’s Mic Check which comes to you on WPKN every Sunday at 5:30 p.m.. Our diverse roster of hosts presents a wide range of topics for discussion, focusing on global, national and regional issues that affect our local community. Just as the phrase mic check mobilizes people to create a human microphone during public demonstrations and protest actions, this weekly program amplifies our community’s many voices and brings them to the airwaves. This show will be posted on WPKN’s archive site for the next two weeks. Go to archive WPKN.org. Choose the air date and click on the show. Mic check and boom, you’ll have access to this recording. If you want to contact me, I can be reached at IBWPKN@gmail.com.
[00:01:31] In Connecticut. We’re in the legislative session, and it’s a time where budgets are being created and policy concepts are being vetted. And I have to say that a lot of these things should be. Should be better informed by people doing the work with folks that have all sorts of needs in our communities. The wisdom of people providing services to community members who have mental health issues, substance use issues. Financial problems. Housing issues should really be. At the foundation of what is looked at when we’re talking about our policies and our budget. Policies and budgets can feel so sterile. But use the mantra these are people to stay grounded in the fact that these tools of our democracy are incredibly important in helping our communities thrive. We’re going to get into both policy and the human story. We’re going to talk about human services. These are all sorts of services, including child care, case management, helping people plan for safety, provision of food, immigration services that touch our lives at some of our hardest moments. And these are things that really kind of push the question: What do we owe to each other? We’re going to explore what it means to meet people’s needs in this story. We’re going to get started with Sue Murphy. Sue is the co-chair of the New London Human Services Network.
Sue Murphy: [00:03:26] Everybody is reaching for well-being, right? We want to live a secure. Comfortable, thriving life that lets us do the things that we want to do and be the people that we want to be. And at some time in everybody’s life, you’re going to take a hit and you may reach out for help. You may need somebody to help you along after that. And that’s why the human services provider network is there.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:03:59] The New London Human Services Network started in about 2016. Jeannie Milstein was the incoming director of Human services for the City of New London, and she reached out to Sue Murphy to convene human service providers and help restart some of the human services work that had been shut down for a few years. The network currently has a legislative slate where they are advocating for policies to address housing, child care and economic development. This legislative slate is also being supported by other partners, including the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut. A member organization to this network is Madonna Place. Here is the executive director, Claire Silva, to explain more.
Claire Silva: [00:04:59] The mission of Madonna Place is to provide services which strengthen families, promote health and prevent child abuse neglect. We have four main programs our family support center, our fatherhood initiative program, great Beginnings, and our HOPE program, which just opened in 2022.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:05:21] We’re going to get into a lot more detail about the work that Madonna place does. It’s important to really note that Madonna Place is in an ecosystem that has other service providers in it that do different things. They are also working to serve a lot of different people and families. And so for all of these connections to be properly made, communication and coordination are essential.
Claire Silva: [00:05:55] We have so many clients coming in. We don’t have any competitive type. Our process is we’re looking for the best resource possible for each of the families. So whether that’s us internally or if that’s an. Outside agency. We have strong collaborative relationships with many other non-profits, so we definitely try to steer people to them if we know their programs or services will be a better fit for the needs of each family.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:06:35] Sue Murphy from the New London Human Services Network is clear that this is part of the reason why the network is important.
Sue Murphy: [00:06:46] No one agency is likely not to be able to meet all the needs of even a single client, you know, because people are complicated. Lives are complicated.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:06:57] Robin Vilchez, who is the Cope Program Manager at Madonna Place, knows all about people’s complicated lives.
Robin Vilchez: [00:07:06] Every day clients come, I start with me building a rapport with the community so that I can best put my clients in places that they need to be with comfort and ease. Knowing that my rapport with other agencies will get them the best services that they need. Can I share a story?
Isabelle Barbour: [00:07:28] Sure!
Robin Vilchez: [00:07:29] My first, I think it was my first month here. Homelessness was not even on the forefront of who my clientele is, right? So I had a client come in and they were in a situation to where they had to leave their home. And they had a child and it was a young man. He came here and we called 211, and we did the assessment with 211. And it ended up being. It’s tough. This is tough. And it up to where I had to tell this young man and his six year old son, I’m sorry, I have a home to go to. I can go sit down and eat at a table with my family. But you have to find a space under the bridge somewhere. Because there’s no place for you. That was tough for me.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:08:39] In Connecticut, housing and homeless services are accessed through what’s called a coordinated access network. And what this means is that there is a list of community providers across the state that work and provide services to people experiencing homelessness. Folks access this network through calling 211. During a call with 211, a person will be connected to a specialist to assess housing needs and they will be offered what’s called a CAN assessment appointment. So sometimes somebody facing homelessness has to wait for this assessment. If the person is assessed and prioritized with a high need for housing, the CAN community providers can either provide housing or somebody can be prioritized for a waiting list. It’s really important to note that housing resources are prioritized for individuals and families who meet the literal homeless definition of the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD. So this basically means that if you are living in your car, you are not considered homeless or if you are staying on someone’s couch, you are not considered homeless. There are a lot of reasons why this process is not ideal. One of them is the impact on clients and the other is the impact on staff. Here’s Sue Murphy with some thoughts.
Sue Murphy: [00:10:24] It is extremely stressful when you’re a person that goes into something to say, I want to help people. You know, I want to help homeless folks find housing in the community and stabilize their lives. And you’re the one that’s on, you know, on point to try and do that for folks. And sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:10:46] Robin became more and more committed to never having this happen again.
Robin Vilchez: [00:10:51] What it ended up causing me to do is really hone in on like, okay, Claire, what are we as an agency, what are we doing? How do we do this? How do. How does this not happen to the clients that come through our door? And so it kind of morphed into me really advocating for clients that are homeless and being on different homeless committee. You know, I’ve been on the Connecticut Eastern CAN committee and I’m still fighting for the some kind of reform when it comes down to homeless people.
[00:11:26] Landlords are jacking these. See, I’m going to get excited here, but these landlords are jacking these, you know, these prices up and people their money’s not going up, but their rent is going up. Food is going up. Electricity is going up. And they fall short or they’re running behind because they’re trying to rob Peter to pay Paul. And then now they’re a month behind and they’re in the process of being homeless. But when we call 211, they have to be 14 days within being homeless. Or homeless. Call me when you’re. Call me when you’re 14 days instead of being preventative. Call me when you’re 14 days. We call when 14 days happen. Oh, call me when you’re really out on the street. This is where why sit at the table and to hear other agencies say, well, we know this person. Because. This person was in your your homeless shelter two years ago and you’re telling me they’re back here again? So what did we miss? So I will be sitting down with some key people because I believe when you’re homeless and the moment you become homeless and you go into a shelter or you go into a place, it starts the clock starts ticking right there, especially when you have a family.
Sue Murphy: [00:12:52] You know, there in communities where people are continually talking to each other, understanding what one agency and this various agencies are doing and helping each other out and looking for opportunities to collaborate. Services run better than they run in communities where this doesn’t happen.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:13:17] Another issue that comes up that’s really, really challenging is the issue of folks who don’t have documents and their housing needs. Rosa Hernandez, a family support specialist at Madonna Place, talks about her experiences.
Rosa Hernandez: [00:13:34] My people are undocumented. They don’t have federal funding to help these people. They most of them they don’t have family here. They only have a friend, someone that they knew from their job. So it is most of my family. I have ten right now. I think only two are documented. The eight is undocumented. I have a family that they are living in poor conditions with rats and cockroaches. And for me, the apartment that they have, it was like a garage that the owner make an apartment, but it was full of rats. I can hear the the rats in the walls. The mom is a young woman, 19 years old. The dad is 21. They live with a sister that is 16. So young people, they don’t know about the resources. They think they don’t have any access to anything or they’re not they don’t have rights to do anything, but they have a contract for the rent. She was kind of scared, but then I just there with them. So we do the call with the landlord. They wasn’t that pleasant to talk, so I let them know that I will call public health. And I did. And we have the meeting. They went to the do the visit, they inspect and they made them do the fumigations and all clean the whole apartment. They were scared, thinking that they may lose the place.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:15:07] Rosa shared that she had been scared, too. She had been scared that by reporting the issue that she might have had her clients lose their housing or be deported.
Claire Silva: [00:15:19] I was in the homeless field for 11 years and it’s a burnout field. And from what I can see, it’s gotten even worse because with COVID, a house houses for sale and then people with big money come in, they they buy things with cash. Now all of a sudden those apartments are off the market, so there’s just less and less housing available. And then what’s hard is if you have a family that’s bouncing from couch to couch, they don’t qualify. They’re not eligible for homeless services because they’re technically not meeting the definition of homeless. And then if the shelters are full and there are no rapid rehousing dollars available, what what are you supposed to do with families that are homeless?
Isabelle Barbour: [00:16:14] This was the part of the interview where we had talked about a lot of tough stuff, and it looked across the table to Luan Cadahia, who’s the manager of the Family Support Center, and I asked him what he was hearing.
Luan Cadahia: [00:16:30] I’m hearing a lot of heartbreak.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:16:33] What do you what would be the fix?
Luan Cadahia: [00:16:36] Policy. Policy. Policy. Policy. Madonna place exists because of injustice. Because of–how we exist in particularly the United States. Things are not equitable and things are just harder for a particular demographic that just so happens to appear Brown, Black, Latino, Asian. So we are effectively — we’re trying to be proactive with let’s put triage, let’s put a Band-Aid on the wound. But a lot of the resources are temporary. What does it look like to live in a community where equity and dignity is the main idea?
Isabelle Barbour: [00:17:32] Sue Murphy’s been tracking some of the legislation occurring in Connecticut’s current legislative session.
Sue Murphy: [00:17:40] There is a big campaign being operated by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, to shore up the homeless response system, which does a lot of the work, you know, in terms of rehousing people. So that is that is getting a full court press. So I’m hopeful that that will go through. Other housing legislation. We’ve weighed in on it. Some things have been passed out of committee, which is promising. And a lot depends on on the overall Appropriations Committee when all of this information gets passed up to them. I think that the chairs of appropriations would be on board with most of what our network is advocating for. And of course, the question becomes, you know, with all the conflicting priorities, what makes it out of appropriations at the end of the process?
Isabelle Barbour: [00:18:42] While the legislature considers the fates of thousands of Connecticut community members, things just keep going at the Family Support Center at Madonna Place.
Luan Cadahia: [00:18:54] Particularly in the family support center. We are getting people from all walks of life, but particularly with a huge emphasis on families who are undocumented. So a lot of what Rosa was saying of it’s difficult to find programs that. These families would qualify for because of the barrier of not having the correct paperwork. And these families who a lot of them would could be classified as refugees of they’re escaping certain situations of danger and harm.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:19:31] The client that I got to meet, I will be calling her Christianne. Probably fits this definition. Christianne volunteered to speak with me and I explained the process and received her full consent to record and Ferna Llewellyn, a Family Support Specialist, provided translation between English and Haitian Creole.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:19:56] What made her want to come to this country?
Ferna Lewellen–translating into Haitian Creole Haitian Creole: [00:20:00] Correct transcript for Haitian Creole is not currently available through Sonix.
Christianne–speaking Haitian Creole: [00:20:20] Correct transcript for Haitian Creole is not currently available through Sonix.
Ferna Llewellyn-translating into English: [00:20:30] So she came here because of the way that Haiti is. She went to Chile in 2016 and from Chile . . .
Christianne–speaking Haitian Creole: [00:20:41] Correct transcript for Haitian Creole is not currently available through Sonix.
Ferna Llewellyn-translating into English: [00:20:55]. . . spent six years in Chile. It. It wasn’t so great because there’s a lot of Haitians who died in Chile as well by gunshots and other. . .
Christianne–speaking Haitian Creole: [00:21:10] Correct transcript for Haitian Creole is not currently available through Sonix.
Ferna Llewellyn-translating into English: [00:21:13] And some of the Chileans are always kicking them out as in – go back to your country.
Christianne–speaking Haitian Creole: [00:21:18] Correct transcript for Haitian Creole is not currently available through Sonix.
Ferna Llewellyn-translating into English: [00:21:23] Especially the way that the country is functioning. So I was a little bit afraid. I felt like it was urgent for me to leave and come over here to this country.
Christianne–speaking Haitian Creole: [00:21:32] Correct transcript for Haitian Creole is not currently available through Sonix.
Ferna Llewellyn-translating into English: [00:21:38] Even though it was difficult. But God helped us come here.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:21:44] Christianne shared with me a really horrible, horrific night somewhere in a forest in South America where she was confronted with. Robbers who had terrorized migrants coming through that area. And she felt like, relatively speaking, she got through unscathed. Her money was taken, but she and her children were allowed to pass. It made me think a lot about what it takes to reach out for help in a country where you don’t speak the language, where you don’t have papers. And I talked to the Madonna Place staff about what it takes to really connect with clients.
Luan Cadahia: [00:22:37] Our families. They arrive in fear and mistrust. And a lot of our work comes with dropping those defenses that they have due to the trauma, due to the situations that they’re they’re going through.
Rosa Hernandez: [00:22:51] And took time for us to just to to them to let them be open and honest with us to say what is going on.
Robin Vilchez: [00:22:59] Yeah, it’s a lot of you know, I think we as a whole, we have the warm smile and the warm welcome and the warm, you know, listen, I’m here to hear you. We let them know that we’re very transparent here. You know, that’s one thing that we have to be as an agency and as a whole is transparent with each other and clients to speak.
Luan Cadahia: [00:23:23] On a little bit of what Robin was saying about building that connection of trust, the impact that that has when, say, for instance, an undocumented family comes and they receive services from us, they build relationships with our staff. Word of mouth travels very quickly among the community of, hey, like Madonna, Place is a great place to come. And they they’ll hear you out. They’ll listen. I know that there was a story, Robin, you could probably even tell of you received a phone call and we didn’t necessarily have exactly what they were looking for. But as we were hearing a little bit about what they needed, we said, yes, like we this place in in the community is what you’re looking for. Let me connect you with them. And I believe they called Robin back and just saying like, wow, that was the first time like someone actually heard me out and pointed me to where I needed to go.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:24:23] Putting resources into adults is part of how Madonna Place prevents child abuse. Clair explains a little more.
Claire Silva: [00:24:34] So the more resources we can put into helping the parents succeed, that’s ultimately going to help the family succeed.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:24:43] One way to do this is to really provide a one stop shop at Madonna place for everything that a family needs. This is happening somewhat naturally because Madonna Place is trusted, but it’s also the focus of the COPE program. Luan and Robin explain.
Luan Cadahia: [00:25:07] A client that may refer to receive legal counsel in terms of immigration status and the processes they might feel intimidated or unsafe to go to a lawyer or to a legal center. And we know as we build relationships with different organizations to bring them in-house because families feel comfortable in our spaces. They some families will just drop in and chat up with some family support center staff. They’ll grab a coffee, maybe they’ll have children play in the playroom. But we wanted Madonna place to be a space where families feel safe to come so that they can receive the resources. That they need. So, Robin, can you speak?
Robin Vilchez: [00:25:58] Yeah, I was about to say. Yeah, it’s funny you said that because I was just about to say. Okay, tag, I’m it. So this woman right here, I have to give it to Claire. She had a vision, and with COPE and I just ran with it. The dream of COPE is to be a one stop shop. To have other agencies come and utilize our space at our in our area. We never use that front area out of all the years that we’ve been here. And then this superwoman comes out of nowhere and she’s like, Nope, we’re going to use the door. We’re going to use the front door because Main Street is our address. So it just and here’s COPE and we’re like, Oh, okay, well what is COPE? She said, Community Outreach Plus Education. COPE is COPE. Oh. Okay. I think I understand what you’re saying. Right. So and it just morphed to where it’s at. So we had an open house in January. It’s just been amazing.
[00:27:04] COPE is an area to where other community agencies can come in if they live afar. Because you have to understand we are in a heart of Norwich. This is where everyone stops off. Why not have TVCCA come here one day? Why not have Generations come here one day? Why not have Norwich Human Services sit down and take and do intakes here one day, even though they’re up the street? But guess what? They always come here. They don’t go up the street. They come to Madonna place. Right?
Isabelle Barbour: [00:27:38] It’s amazing how sometimes when you spend a few hours with people, you can feel walls of isolation breaking down. There was something sad that was said in the room, and then this happened.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:27:52] [In conversation with Madonna Place staff] But COPE.
Robin Vilchez: [00:27:55] Come on, somebody. Can we — Can I get an amen? I like you.
Claire, Luan, Robin, Rosa, and Isabelle: [00:28:08] [Full group laughing] Damn, We’re awesome. That’s a wrap.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:28:10] Well, that is a wrap. Many thanks to Sue Murphy and the New London Human Services Network. I also want to give special thanks to all of the staff at Madonna Place, the folks that I spoke with and the folks that helped open the doors for me when I got a little lost. If you want to know more about Madonna place, go to madonnaplace.org. You can learn all about their programs and you can make a donation. Thanks. Bye.