Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2009

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The Search for Home
Photos by Gabrielle Kaminsky ´09

Herbert Randolph Bennett Jr. ´09
first became homeless when
he was 4 years old.

by Gabrielle Kaminsky ´09


One day I was in daycare and my father came to pick me up,” recalls the soft-spoken young man, who prefers to be called Jr. “He had a couple things packed inside the car. He told me we were leaving.”

For his first four years, Bennett had lived with his mother, father, and older half-brother and half-sister in an apartment in the Bronx, N.Y. Now he and his parents found themselves at New York City´s Emergency Assistance Unit, now the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing Office, which he calls “the gateway to homelessness.” He explains: “When people first become homeless, they must go there to receive housing. It´s not a shelter; it´s an office building. But people sleep there anyway — on the floor, the benches.”

His family moved from shelter to shelter throughout the city before getting an apartment when Bennett was 7. But they stayed there only two years. Bennett says one evening when he was 9, he and his father came home to find a padlock on their door. They had been evicted. For the next few years they lived with friends and family, in an abandoned building, and even spent a few nights riding the train — anything to avoid going back into the shelter system. “I became secretive,” Jr says. I would never tell people I was homeless. I just said that I lived on such-and-such avenue.”

By this time, Bennett´s mother was living in a nursing home, due to a rare hereditary disorder called Hicks syndrome. Bennett visited her there until she died, when he was 15.

Bennett and his father went to live with Bennett´s grandmother, in the Bronx. Bennett attended seven different schools between elementary school and college. But he found some stability volunteering for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, helping homeless men, women and children get meals and organizing fundraising events. There Bennett met an advocate, Anne Duggan, whom he calls one of the most influential people in his life. “She made me feel I was important again by asking me to help her with a campaign,” he says. “The coalition pushed me to into believing in myself and made me realize my strengths.”

“(Duggan) hooked me up with the right people to get into Urban Academy, my third high school,” Bennett continues. Through her he also met a college counselor, who in turn introduced him to Martha C. Merrill ´84, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College. Merrill encouraged Bennett to apply and invited him to New London for Explore Weekend. Bennett, now 21, still can´t seem to believe his success: “Honestly, I didn´t think I would get in, but I did.”

It was also through the Coalition for the Homeless that Bennett met the couple he calls his “adopted” parents, Robert Berwitz and Nancy Salamone, of Hull, Mass. Their daughter, Shannon, had worked with Bennett at the coalition and told her parents about him. Berwitz and Salamone wanted to meet him and, even before doing so, they began sending him money. They exchanged e-mails for a few months before meeting in person. “They come to the city to help me bring my bike up to Conn every year. They look out for me,” Bennett says. “They filled the void my real parents would have, had they been around and able to take care of me. That´s why I consider them my adopted parents. They do things for me that I feel a parent would do, even just calling to see how I´m doing. Nancy will even ask me if I need underwear,”
he laughs.

The challenges have continued for Bennett since he matriculated at Connecticut College. His father went to prison on drug charges, getting out last summer. A few months later, Bennett´s grandmother died. But he has found new connections in his responsibilities on campus. As co-coordinator of ALANA Sisters and Brothers last year, he helped first-year students of color adjust to college. “Being in this leadership role made me feel as though I´d be ready to take on a larger role,” he says. Now Bennett works as housefellow of Lambdin House, where 67 students live.


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