Just another guy who I should avoid eye contact with and hope he doesn’t ask me for spare change, many residents likely thought as they walked by Chris Murphy on the streets of New Haven, CT Monday.
Few knew his day job: United States senator.
While most Americans were still on vacation celebrating the holidays, Sen. Murphy (D-CT) spent Monday shadowing “Nick,” a New Haven man who has been homeless for the past six months. Nick preferred that his real name not be printed.
The cards were stacked against Nick from the beginning. His father was a drug addict, and by 13 years old, Nick was hooked on crack as well. Two years later, Nick was a ward of the state.
The fact that he was able to overcome these odds, graduate from high school, and find work as a salesman is a testament to his resolve. But Nick, who had worked his entire life, lost his advertising sales job last year. Without an income, he lost his home soon thereafter. And last week, his jobless benefits expired. Nick lives on the streets now as he looks for new work.
The two men, both 40 years old, spent the day together to give Murphy a better sense of the unique challenges that homeless people face in trying to improve their lives. Their day began at 7:30 a.m., when the shelter Nick stayed at asks residents to vacate. Their first stop was the methadone clinic for Nick to treat his drug addiction. The two then hung out at Dunkin Donuts and walked around to kill time, waiting for the library to open at 10 a.m. Nick spent the next hour and a half filling out sales job applications, responding to emails, and setting up an appointment with a career counseling organization. Because he doesn’t own a car, the jobs he could apply for were restricted to those that had offices on a bus route.
His drive to get back on his feet is clearly strong. What was really holding Nick back, however, was his lack of an address. Even though Nick has worked for 20 years and has an impressive résumé, he’s caught in something of a catch-22, Murphy told ThinkProgress by phone Thursday. “He can’t get a job without a permanent address and can’t get a permanent address without a job.” Nick used the address of the shelter on applications, but some employers might harbor prejudice against those who can’t afford a home.
If there’s one thing Murphy took away from the experience, it’s a better sense of how critical stable housing is as a foundation for solving other problems. “Without a place to live, Nick can’t find a job,” Murphy said. “Without a house, it’s much harder for him to kick his drug habit.” But without more affordable housing in Connecticut and funding for the poor, it’s extremely difficult for people like Nick to leave the shelter and break out of the cycle of poverty.
The challenge became even more difficult this week as Nick’s only source of income — $100 in unemployment benefits — wasn’t renewed by Congress. “If we don’t extend unemployment benefits this month, you’re going to see a lot more homeless people here in Connecticut and across the country,” Murphy said.
At noon they went to a soup kitchen for lunch — baked beans with sliced up hot dogs and corn — before it was time for Nick’s Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Afterwards they tried to kill time at Starbucks and another Dunkin Donuts, because, as Murphy noted afterwards, “When it’s 40 [degrees] you can’t be outside all day so our day encompassed a lot of walking punctuated with opportunities to get inside for an hour or two.” Had Murphy been shadowing Nick on Friday, they would have had to deal with single-digit temperatures.
After an hour or so, the pair headed back to Nick’s shelter to secure a bed for the evening. Though they arrived a half hour before doors opened, a line had already formed. Not everyone got a bed that day.
For Murphy, the day was an opportunity to learn more about an issue that too often gets ignored among both local and national policymakers. After all, the senator told ThinkProgress, “There’s a limited amount you can learn about the reality of homelessness when you’re just sitting at a conference table.”
This isn’t the first time he stepped outside the comfort zone to experience how those in poverty live. In May, Murphy was among 26 lawmakers who participated in a challenge to spend a week living on $4.50 per day, the amount of money afforded to recipients of food stamps, in order to highlight GOP-backed cuts to the program.
“As sobering as a day like this is,” Murphy said, “it’s slightly inspirational to hear somebody who’s been through what these guys have been through still believing there’s better days coming up soon.” But, he noted to ThinkProgress, “it’s unacceptable that people in the richest state in the richest nation in the world should have to live this dehumanizing experience.”