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Not Quite Out on the Street, the 'Couch People' Call an Old Piece of Furniture Home

January 24, 1988|Associated Press

STAMFORD, Conn. — Richard pays $300 a month to live on a torn couch in a crowded apartment. Bobby sleeps on a sofa in the cellar of a restaurant.

They are among an estimated 300 "couch people" in Stamford, a wealthy corporate center 35 miles northeast of New York City, according to caretakers of the homeless.

"A lot of people don't consider couch people homeless, but most of them have to be out (of the house) during the day," said Judy Moriarty, who works in the city's shelters and estimates that 700 people in Stamford have no regular place to live.

"It's a landlord's paradise here," she said. "Couch people share a bath. They usually can't use the kitchen, so some take canned goods in and hide them under their couch.

"It's a hidden thing because of the fire hazards and housing codes and if they were found out, there would be a lot of people out on the streets."

Richard, who declined to be fully identified for fear of being evicted, lives with two women and four men in a three-room apartment.

A social studies teacher for 10 years, Richard said he "burnt out" and left the profession in 1978. Now he works in a warehouse and makes $250 a week.

"My rooming house was closed," Richard said. "I lived in a shelter for a while and I came here in May."

Rent for his couch is $75 a week. His landlord gives him a deal, he said, because he earns less than his roommates, who pay up to $400 monthly.

The women have their own rooms with single beds, while the men share a room and sleep on couches.

The apartment was cold during a reporter's visit, and the floor around a space heater was littered with cigarette butts, empty wine bottles and bags of drained beer cans.

"They drink because it's a way to escape from the reality," said Marvin Minkler, a shelter worker who spends part of his day checking on couch people. "Richard will never teach again. They'll never get an apartment in this town."

Moriarty said she saw the couch people begin to emerge about five years ago.

"We have people living in abandoned cars, too, and tent people," she said.

They won't go to homeless shelters because they are too proud, she said.

When corporations moved to Stamford and the surrounding area in the early 1970s, houses and apartment buildings were torn down to make room for offices. But the buildings weren't replaced with new homes for low- and middle-income people, Moriarty said.

"One by one all of these buildings came down," said Minkler. "Meanwhile these people are still here. We find old people who have lost a partner . . . and they become couch people.

"I blame it on a lot of indifference," he said. "They took the humanity out of here and put in the three-piece suits, carpet floors and crystal towers."

Jane McNichol, director of the Connecticut Coalition for the Homeless, blamed the phenomenon of couch people on the high cost of housing in the area.

"The shelters in Stamford say it's just not realistic to talk about finding housing for these people in Stamford. They have to tell them to look elsewhere," she said.

Bobby Holtz, 31, lives in the cellar of a Stamford restaurant, sleeping on a couch. He is one of the lucky couch people because he pays no rent, but he helps the owner with chores. He was fired from his job last summer as a dishwasher at a hotel where he made $180 a week.

He lived in a car for a while, but, he said, "They towed my apartment away."

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