The Transition

Michael Cutler, 44, has a leathery face and a limp and comes from the old vanguard of coffee-shop patrons. He believes the shops exist for storytelling and tall, black cups of joe. Most days, he sets himself down at the Starbucks on the corner of High and Chapel streets in New Haven. His table has a view of the entire shop.

The Starbucks that Cutler frequents is half a block from the center of Yale and one full block from the New Haven Green, where many of the city’s homeless population fall asleep each night. It is less than a block from the front steps of the Yale Repertory Theatre, where Cutler spent his first night on the street tucked beneath a garbage bag with issues of the New Haven Advocate and Play for a mattress. Cutler was homeless until March of this year.

Cutler first became homeless in 2004 after losing a job making calls at Lester Telemarketing in Branford. He had lived for a while at Valley Motel on Route 80 in Guilford but could no longer pay for the room. He bought a tent at Walmart for twenty dollars with his first unemployment check and pitched it in East Rock Park for two years.

In 2006, Cutler served three months in Bridgeport Correctional Facility for failure to appear in court on larceny charges. (He says he was house-sitting for a friend whose credit card was stolen by another friend he invited over.) He spent the following years living with family and friends and did mandatory volunteer work at a furniture co-op. September 2010 found Cutler on the street again.

“Most people are just a paycheck away,” he said.

Last winter, Cutler participated in a program called Abraham’s Tent. Columbus House, the city’s largest homeless shelter, developed the program in winter 2010 when it filled its beds—100 shelter, 110 overflow, thirty-five temporary—and still had men and women lining up outside. Abraham’s Tent was designed to aid twelve homeless men, chosen for work ethic and cooperative behavior, in the transition to independent housing. For each of the coldest sixteen weeks of the year, a different church or community group provides the men with food, shelter, and the company of volunteers.

“This was about a very safe space for the participants to do what they need to do—get a job, meet other people,” said Columbus House director Allison Cunningham. “Last year, we made it a clear part of the program that we don’t want them back.”

Cutler’s, so far, is a success story for the program.

Yale students hosted Abraham’s Tent this February 21 through 27 at Christ Church on Temple Street, in a large mint-green hall. Evenings that week, Cutler played gin rummy, chatting with the volunteers and looking occasionally at his hand.

The other eleven men of Abraham’s Tent nicknamed Cutler “Mom.” He has shoulder-length brown hair and plays cards by the rules.

A friend of Cutler’s, also in the program, was called “Dad”—Cutler’s counterpart and an avid cook. He kept one bag with him at all times. Besides folded socks, underwear, and an umbrella, it contained a pepper grinder, an ice cream scoop, homemade Cajun spice, small and large crystallized sea salt, garam masala, and tumeric.

The two homeless men had been friends for years. They met on the New Haven Green. Cutler’s current Fountain Street apartment, his first home in two years, is paid for by a grant arranged by his Columbus House caseworker from the federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP). The grant will pay his first six months’ rent, until September 30. After September 30, if Cutler makes six hundred dollars a month, he will be allowed to stay in the subsidized apartment, covering one-third of the rent himself. If he doesn’t make that much, he will lose the funding.

Cutler was recently employed about thirty-two hours a week by Clean Team, which works in beautification projects downtown as part of Town Green Special Services. He was let go a few weeks ago. He says he called in sick and the company never received his call so held him responsible for missing work.

He now is unemployed again, with his roof once more at risk.

On the day Cutler moved in this March, he went to his usual Starbucks, hopped on the B2 bus and walked to the apartment manager’s office on Fountain Street. Lisa Cuomo, the building manager, jingled a set of keys as he turned the corner into her office.

Cutler sat down, crossed his legs, and leaned toward the lease on the table, reading it eagerly.

Laundry is available on every floor.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Guests must park on the street.

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

No pets.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, nah, I wouldn’t, darling, nah, none of those.”

Later that day, Cutler left his new apartment just as he had found it. He slung the heavy backpack he had brought but did not unpack over a shoulder and surveyed the three rooms with bare walls and empty cupboards. He caught the B2 back downtown and got off a few blocks from his table at Starbucks.

“I’m an addict,” he said. “Ask anyone. I was there at 6 a.m. this morning. I think I need rehab. I think I was there five times.”

Employees at the coffee shop know Cutler for the stories he tells. While participating in Abraham’s Tent this February, he and others often told a story of a woman passed out on a New Haven street. The story changed with each retelling in the green room at Christ Church. Sometimes the woman was young, sometimes old. She was on a bench or on the ground. The program participants did agree on the story’s end: No one helped the woman, and she was inches from death.

“You come out of the womb,” Cutler said, “and doctors slap you on the butt, and you carry on with as much moral correctness as you can. Don’t hurt women or animals. Don’t be a scumbag.”

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