Since 1884, a Hartford shelter’s wood yard provided work for the homeless. Its closure brings new opportunity

·6 min read

In 2011, a rare October nor’easter dumped more than a foot of wet, heavy snow on the state, and thrust a group of homeless men in work therapy onto the front lines.

A crush of people without lights or heat descended on wood yards around the state, including one on Maxim Road in Hartford, where recently incarcerated and unsheltered men worked splitting and stacking firewood to get acclimated to life at the Open Hearth shelter.

As supervisor David Knighton, a former shelter resident who got his first job in the wood yard, helped manage the chaotic scene, he saw just how far he’d come since his younger days selling drugs in the same community.

“Working at Open Hearth, I’ve been in situations now where I feel like I’m a help. I’m helping in this world,” Knighton said last week, as he reflected on the permanent closure of the wood yard after more than 50 years on Maxim Road and a total of 136 years in the city.

An original program of the Open Hearth, which was founded in 1884, the wood yard was shut down last year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among staff and shelter residents.

The nonprofit decided this year to end the work therapy program for good in order to focus resources on its Working Man’s Center, which provides a range of health, education and employment services, including counseling, substance abuse recovery and job search training, to current and former shelter residents.

With the wood yard shuttered, the Working Man’s Center didn’t skip a beat. It continued helping residents secure identification documents, prepare resumes and pursue certifications in high-demand job skills, like food safety and forklift operation.

And if the there was one bright spot to be found in the pandemic, it was an increased demand for workers. Employers who previously wouldn’t consider applicants with criminal records or bad credit were suddenly hiring men through the Open Hearth.

While the health crisis is finally waning, Open Hearth Executive Director Marilyn Rossetti says it didn’t make financial sense to reopen such an expensive operation as the wood yard, which required the nonprofit to carry high levels of insurance coverage.

Firewood sales barely supported the program, which was essentially a relic from a time when charitable organizations in most major cities, including New Haven, Philadelphia and Boston, offered temporary work to homeless laborers in exchange for lodging and meals.

“You could say the wood yard was a vestige of the Victorian era, when the (Open Hearth) started in a church basement and people were growing their own vegetables,” said social worker Stephen Haynes, the program director of the Working Man’s Center.

It also required Rossetti, a Democrat on Hartford’s city council, to maintain a working knowledge of all things timber, from the laws of transporting wood over state lines to the names of tree-destroying pests like the Asian long-horned beetle and Emerald ash borer.

Rossetti thought of the time she could be spending on fundraising and developing programs, and the time the staff could be spending on case management and more modern employment efforts. The wood yard, once a powerful tool for fostering pride and work ethic, had to go, she said.

“Times change, and if you don’t change with the times, you get left behind,” Rossetti said. “Employment is such a big part of what we do, so let’s do it in a way that’s more efficient, more timely. It doesn’t mean hard work isn’t still important and instilled, but we’re doing it in a way that works.”

Residents still gain on-the-job experience through Open Hearth Works, a social enterprise started in 2016 to provide work crews for maintenance, cleaning, snow removal and other jobs.

On Tuesday, Knighton oversaw an Open Hearth Works team cleaning up the old Fuller Brush Co. factory complex in Hartford’s North End.

While it’s a nonprofit, Open Hearth Works helps raise revenue for the shelter and its programs while meeting the organization’s mission: providing transitional jobs to men with felony records, limited experience and bad work history. The first job helps them get a second, ideally somewhere they can build a career.

To give residents the best chance of success, Open Hearth restricts them from job searching for up to a month, during which staff help sort out complex barriers to employment — like acquiring birth certificates from Puerto Rico — and start to address issues of substance abuse and mental illness.

But the philosophy is still the same as in those 19th century wood yards, work rooms and laundries: placing purpose above profit.

An 1893 report on the “International Congress of Charities, Correction and Philanthropy,” described the belief that working could “become the open doors to new lives of self-respect and self-support.”

That was true in Hartford for Knighton, who was assigned to the wood yard program upon his release from prison after serving about 18 years.

He appreciated working outside, using tools and learning to operate the wood processor and forklift. The daily routine and responsibilities were stabilizing. He spent a year living at Open Hearth, but even after he completed the wood yard program and got a job at Dunkin’ Donuts, he kept visiting the place where he got his start.

When there was an opening for a driver, Knighton jumped at the chance to return to the yard as an employee.

It was a place of camaraderie and mentorship from Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari, the former shelter director who spent years overseeing the firewood operation. Ansari, who died in May 2020, held his crew to high moral standards, which Knighton says he still lives by.

“I try to do right because he was the one that seen the most in me when I probably wasn’t seeing it in myself,” he said.

Knighton, a father of four, eventually became the wood yard supervisor. When the program was shut down last year, he began supervising the nonprofit’s associate counselors. He is also a case manager and the director of operations for Open Hearth Works, and he shows up to the shelter early most days in case a resident needs someone to talk to over breakfast.

In another year, Knighton’s time in prison will be surpassed by his career with Open Hearth, “working with guys like myself, showing them that change is possible.”

He’s not sad to see the wood yard go, either. While the program gave him his start, the jobs he oversees through Open Hearth Works do the same for shelter residents. But these jobs can provide something in addition to pride: a paycheck.

“While the wood yard was great at the time, we’re moving forward,” he said. “We can help the men help themselves.”

Rebecca Lurye can be reached at rlurye@courant.com.

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