Hartford police officer Jim Barrett’s close-shaven head and muscular six-foot frame reflect his twenty-one years of military service. Cruising the city streets on a chilly March morning in his converted bomb-squad van packed with winter clothing and nonperishables, he recalls his youth in South Windsor. “I always looked out for the underdogs—helped the helpless. I had a calling to serve, so I joined the army. Two tours of combat in the Middle East paid off—made me tough, both mentally and physically. My truck led a caravan of supply vehicles, scouring the roads for [Improvised Explosive Devices] IEDs to ensure safe deliveries to troops camped ahead.” His hands grip the wheel; his eyes focused on the road, save for the quick surveilling glances of a trained observer, “After several near-death experiences there, I told myself if I made it back home, I would spend my life taking care of people who need help. I saw law enforcement as a way of changing the lives of others.”
Officer Barrett’s homeless outreach program is funded solely by donations and his wallet. His engaging personality and ability to draw the attention and interest of anyone in earshot of his story are his bread and butter. Officer Barrett is formidable yet respectful; relentless in his mission to empower the homeless to seek opportunity. He unapologetically accepts contributions that enable him to improve the lives of the “invisible people.” He believes that he offers “not a handout, but a hand up. I’m 100 percent fulfilled; not when someone goes out of their way to thank me, but when someone utilizes my support to fulfill their potential.”
Pastor Bryan Bywater, a friend of Officer Barrett’s who holds street church on the steps of City Hall every Saturday, recounts the early days of Barrett’s outreach. “He was still working out of his office with a few folding tables and crates. Hygiene products and underwear were stocked in file cabinets so, as folks would come off the street, he would have something to give them,” Bywater told me over the phone. “Jim is like an old-school beat cop, and he genuinely loves the neighborhood where he works. He’s got a passion for the community.”
One of his first hand ups was to a Hartford veteran. “One early winter morning, at the corner of Arch Street and Maine, a homeless veteran approached me seeking some help. All he had was his military ID. I engaged with him about his time in the military. I noticed he was wearing sandals and that his feet were badly frostbitten. As a military sergeant, my job was to take care of my enlisted guys and make sure they had the proper resources. I said, ‘I’m gonna change you. I’m gonna change your feet, and I’m gonna change you as an individual.’ I got shoes for him and some clothes and stuff. He was very grateful, and he keeps in touch. Today this man is well and living in Georgia.”
Officer Barrett believes meeting that homeless veteran sparked a new sense of awareness within him, not from a law enforcement perspective, but rather an appreciation for those struggling to stay alive. Tapping into past military leadership, police work, and correctional experience, he embraced this as an opportunity to make a difference. “In my time on the streets, I have changed people’s lives, you know, given them hope for a second chance. What I observed that particular day in that veteran, who put his life on the line for his country, without a home or a glimmer of hope, inspired a movement. I can’t even describe to what degree those first encounters shaped what I’m doing today.”
The concept of homelessness in the United States dates back as early as the 1870s. From that time to now, the term has evolved through several descriptions and definitions. Those living without a home were often described as tramps, vagrants, hoboes. Still more disparagingly, in the words of Francis Wayland, dean of Yale Law School in 1877, “As we utter the word tramp there arises straightway before us the spectacle of a lazy, shiftless, sauntering or swaggering, ill-conditioned, irreclaimable, incorrigible, cowardly, utterly depraved savage.” Such cruel renderings of the unfortunate have-nots have become rooted in the minds of the haves, many of whom consider themselves a separate and superior race.
“Jim is like an old-school beat cop, and he genuinely loves the neighborhood where he works. He’s got a passion for the community.”
Connecticut’s homeless population has seen a 32 percent decrease from 2018 to 2019 and a 75 percent decrease over the previous five years. After the 2019 release of these statistics, Governor Ned Lamont told the Hartford Courant, “The report released today shows that the State of Connecticut continues to be a national leader in ending homelessness. However, we have more work to do, and I will not quit until we can make sure that every person and family has a safe and stable home in our great state.” Still, the presence of homeless souls seeking shelter in concrete recesses around the city, or encampments beneath highway bridges, suggests that the governor’s optimistic predictions have yet to materialize. Hundreds of Connecticut citizens remain homeless due, in part, to job loss and other hardships brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officer Barrett encounters hard-luck stories on the streets of Hartford every day. “The homeless throughout Connecticut tend to migrate to Hartford. You have the addicts who know that the drugs are really good here in Hartford. Then, you have the regular fifty-something guy who got laid off, a law-abiding citizen, who migrated to Hartford for the abundance of resources. And then, there are the working homeless, like the bartender at Funny Bone Comedy Club. You might see him there and never suspect that, at the end of his shift, he’s going to jump on a bus or ride his bicycle or walk back into Hartford, to find shelter under a bridge, or in a vacant building, or the hallway of an apartment complex, to sleep.”
In a recent interview for CBC Radio, Sarah Fox, director of policy at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness (CCEH), said she is cautiously optimistic that Governor Lamont, as well as President Biden, will recognize the right to housing as a priority; not just in terms of the human lives that will be impacted, but also the economic benefits generated through the elimination of homelessness overall. The CCEH has currently introduced at least three bills on Connecticut’s legislative docket: Senate Bill 355, Senate Bill 875, and House Bill 652. This legislation proposes that “the general statutes be amended to establish a right to housing, including the rights to housing affordability, rehousing assistance for people who become homeless and protections from housing loss.”
Mid morning at the Hartford Public Safety Complex, the bright sun shines in the cloudless azure sky that belies the single-digit temperatures. Officer Barrett, facemask in place, finishes stocking his van for today’s street rounds. He’s easily identified in his heavy blue and black jacket, POLICE written in yellow block letters across his broad back. He bounds down two metal steps from the open side door of his HPD branded vehicle. Standing a couple of feet to the left is Ty, a slight man in his midthirties with a snug black knit cap beneath the hood of his faded canvas jacket. A pair of sturdy black leather boots on his feet; a godsend on this frigid morning.
“Officer Barrett is a real blessing to the homeless community. You know, he does the boots and coats program in the winter.” Footwear with Care is the direct outgrowth of his 2015 encounter with a near-frozen homeless veteran. “He’s got the truck here. He’s got clothing in there and shoes for the homeless people. He has a lot of resources that can put you in contact with help, like housing and medical services, if you don’t know where to go and how to do that. You know, and he’s always available. You could call the number.” Ty points to his wristband embossed with Barrett’s cell phone number. “He always makes time for people. I’ve been homeless for a few years. I just met [Officer Barrett]. The way we met was, he’s always looking for people to help.”
Officer Barrett chimes in, “Ty is on a monthlong waiting list for one of a few, widely coveted apartments that are allocated based on availability, and the person’s place on the waiting line.”
Ty adds, “Yeah, Officer Barrett helped get me on the list and he is helping me find some furniture.”
Driving from the Hartford Public Safety Complex, Officer Barrett brings the van to a stop in front of a vacant, run-down, brick building on Main Street directly across from Hartford Public Library. The loud grinding of the emergency brake beckons the hopeful. “This always reminds me of the ice cream truck—as soon as it shows up, kids race to be first in line.” His facemask cannot mask the pride in his eyes. “When they see this truck, they see hope.”
Officer Barrett removes the black shower curtain tension poles that keep provisions on their neatly stocked shelves during transit. Tuna and chicken snack packs, protein drinks, water, and even some sweet treats will stave off hunger for a while. “The key is to get these guys to trust you. Because they can read you, they can feel your energy. They can tell if you’re full of crap. They can tell if you’re real. If they don’t connect with you, you lost them.”
He slides open the side door, revealing a swath of jackets, sweatshirts, and trousers hanging from the ceiling, original sales tags still attached. Jackets, hats, gloves, shoes, socks, and hand-warmers are in great demand today. He serves fresh, hot coffee from his Keurig machine, precious warmth for freezing hands. Leaning out from the door, he tosses prefilled bags of personal hygiene products to outreached arms. “Anyone want a backpack or a suitcase?”
A stout man with a buzz cut emerges from an old model, four-door sedan that just pulled in behind the van; its dull, faded paint might have held pigment in the 1990s. You’d think he might need some shoes judging by the look of the fraying sandals barely fitting around his swollen, scaly feet, his thick, pasty toenails so long they reach the pavement. Instead, he asks for coffee and a few snacks and retreats into his still chugging car.
“Barrett! How’s it goin’?”
“Hey Jose, Sarah! Gettin’ any work?” Sarah and Jose wear thick layers of clothing, trying to keep warm, but Sarah’s chapped hands ache for some warm gloves.
“Nope, I was working for my cousin, but he’s always taking vacations to Florida and then there’s no work for me,” Jose answers. After losing his chef job at City Steam, Jose struggled to pay the rent on their small apartment. “Yeah, we scraped and saved to pay two months ahead, but then we had to move out, and that’s when Officer Barrett got us some tents and other stuff.”
“The key is to get these guys to trust you. Because they can read you, they can feel your energy. They can tell if you’re full of crap. They can tell if you’re real. If they don’t connect with you, you lost them.”
Sarah shares that staying sober is tough right now. “Without Officer Barrett here, we would not be doing as well.”
“That’s right, man! Barrett really do care, and he checks up,” Jose adds, wrapping an arm around Sarah’s shoulder. You tell him where you at and he’ll pop up on you… just to make sure you okay. He don’t have to.”
“Morning, Younis!” Barrett shouts over the line. Raising his hand in a wave, the Middle Eastern man in his midfifties walks toward the van. At the front of the line he orders a coffee. “Two sugars and three creams, okay?”
“I know, I know. How‘re you doin’?” Officer Barrett hands Younis a lollipop before he even asks.
“Thanks, man. You know, I do okay. You got any beef jerky?”
“Right in that bag on the sidewalk.”
Sipping his hot coffee, Younis speaks about how difficult it is for the homeless these days, especially those with mental disorders. “I have depression and anxiety. I was just diagnosed with schizophrenia. Officer Barrett made an appointment for me to go to the clinic down the street.” He points in the direction of the clinic. “But I didn’t go. So, they came here to see me and gave me the meds that I need, and they come to check on me every two weeks. That’s why I listen to Officer Barrett ’cuz he’s real. He cares. If he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it. If he doesn’t see you, he finds you. The cops used to tell me to move on. I don’t have anywhere else to go. He tells the cops not to bother me. They listen to him.”
Beyond the well-meaning humanitarian outreach, both from individuals like Officer Barrett and community organizations, there is a lack of deliberate political action to end homelessness. “I think if you put it out there now, the politicians will have to take off their blinders and deal with it. What you hear in the media is a smokescreen. Like during the winter months, state leaders tell us, ‘We have put many homeless people into hotels,’ somehow reassured that this is enough.”
While it’s true that dozens of shelter residents were moved to hotels due to the raging spread of COVID-19, people like Sarah, a petite sixty-year-old woman wearing a torn quilted jacket with a broken zipper, who leaned on a walker to get to Barrett’s van, sleeps under an I-84 overpass. With a new warm jacket from Officer Barrett, tonight might feel a bit less frigid.
The number of factors leading to homelessness may rival the alarming number of people living on the streets of this country. From the wealthy insurance executive who fell into the dark clutches of alcohol to the desperate teenage girl from a broken family with no choice but to fend for herself, there is no one-size-fits-all portrait. Nor is there a universal solution. Social service agencies, federal housing programs, religious groups, and nonprofits provide services and stopgap assistance without decisive leadership from the legislature. Moreover, some communities are lucky enough to have their own Jim Barrett.
Back on the road, Officer Barrett’s phone signals repeated text messages, relentless reminders that he is never off duty. “As long as I have a truck and gas in the tank to get this stuff out to these guys, I’ll continue my mission. I live by my code.”
Off The Streets
Two women grateful for a hand up from Officer Barrett speak candidly about their lives.
Lisa, once homeless for four years, met Officer Barrett in 2013. Forever grateful for Officer Barrett’s outreach, Lisa considers him “more than a cop. I don’t see that badge anymore. He is like a big brother to me. I see a human being; a person. Police officers get a bad rap, and it’s not all police officers that are bad. Like Officer Barrett, there’s others out there who will help you out. When [you’re] down and out, he shows that he cares. He gives advice when you need it. He’s very humble, and he doesn’t judge people. He believes in me, and he believes in people. I survived, and I have Officer Barrett to thank for this. He always pushed me and believed in me. He said not to doubt myself, but to believe in myself. He gives a lot of attention. He gives a good ear. [Covid-19 Update: Lisa is unemployed after the pandemic forced the Parkland Market to close.]
Dawn, 44, became homeless at the age of 16. She started prostituting herself and using drugs, “because I had to learn how to stay awake, because the people out there were very dangerous and I was very young.” After two years on the streets of Hartford, Dawn met Officer Barrett through a friend she camped with. “My friend introduced me to him, and, like, I was really amazed when … I saw all these pictures of all these people that Officer Barrett did help before I met him. From ceiling to floor it was covered in nothing but photographs of people he has helped that are success stories, and some that have passed away from drug overdoses.”
Over a number of years, in and out of shelters and programs, Dawn knew that whenever her life took a downward turn, Officer Barrett was always there. In many cases, he actively went looking for her when he hadn’t seen her in a while. “Once, he found me at the riverfront and brought me to his office, and he gave me more clothes and cosmetics and food. Officer Barrett has never let me go. He told me he’d never throw me away, like so many other people have.”
“I was so tired of being on the street and so tired of being alone. I said to him one day, ‘Officer Barrett, I’m gonna die.’ And he said, ‘No you’re not. I’m not gonna let that happen.’ But I overdosed. And when he found out that I overdosed he took me to his office. He took pictures of me there, and said that one day these pictures are gonna be part of a success story. If it wasn’t for him I’d be dead. I know I would not be around today walking the earth.”
Claire Hibbs-Cusson is a staff writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
Header Photo Credit: Claire Hibbs-Cusson