HAVERHILL — At a desk tucked into a corner of a basement room at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Monument Square, Patricia Dennehy's attention shifts to one of the tables where homeless people and others on the fringes of society congregate for coffee, conversation and breakfast.
The slightest disturbance in the normally peaceful environment of the Community Action Drop-in Center catches her immediate attention and she doesn't hesitate to respond.
"I'll try to diffuse situations that arise, such as outbursts of anger or a fight that's about to start and if I have to, I'll ask them to leave," said Dennehy, the center coordinator.
Dennehy, the first Haverhill Community Action employee to reach 40 years of service, can be considered a final lifeline to those who have hit rock bottom for a variety of reasons.
"Everybody is unique in their own way and it's important to have someone who cares enough to try to lift them up and turn their lives around," she said. "I don't know how I got here or how I do what I do, but I believe someone is walking beside me to help."
The men and women she works with include those who live on the street, or in a shelter, move from house to house — couch surfing — before drifting back into street life, while some have their own apartment.
"The people Pat cares for are the ones other people would cross the street so as not to encounter," said Bob Gould, director of community services for Community Action.
Most of Dennehy's clients struggle with dual diagnosis of substance abuse and mental illness. Many are unemployable. Some work for minimum wage and most are collecting disability checks.
It's not an easy life, she said of many of her clients.
"Some don't have proper clothing or shoes as they often steal from each other," Dennehy said. "We'll help get them what they need and we'll feed them, too."
William Fortin, 55, says Dennehy saved his life.
"I was a severe alcoholic living under the Basiliere Bridge when Pat entered my life years ago," he said. "She got me into rehab and continued working with me. I live in a sober house now and I've been sober since Jan. 3, 2013.
"Without Pat's help, I'd probably be dead," Fortin said.
Career helping others
A Salisbury native, Dennehy, 65, manages their checking accounts, pays their bills, gives them spending money from their disability checks and ensures they get medical help, housing assistance, counseling, and whatever else they need to survive.
"I began my career working for the WIC program in Newburyport as a clerk, then I came to Haverhill to work in the WIC office here, and also worked in fuel assistance and housing with people who were struggling to pay their rent and utilities," she said.
She began working at the Community Action Drop-In Center that opened on Winter Street in 1988 and became center coordinator when the program moved into the basement of the UU Church about 15 years ago.
Dennehy handles situations that many of the people she serves just cannot handle on their own.
"They might come to me to say their wallet was stolen and I'll send away for a birth certificate or school record to help them obtain a new ID," she said. "It was a lot easier to get a replacement ID prior to 9-11. Now you have to jump through hoops."
It's not unusual for one of her guests to nod off from a drug overdose, which is something she's seen more of in recent years.
"There was a time when pure heroin would hit the street and we'd have an occasional overdose, but now with fentanyl, it's just been crazy at how many people are overdosing," she said.
As the majority of her guests rarely see a doctor, she brings in a physician from the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center along with a nurse, who stop by weekly to offer basic health screenings and treat medical issues such as wounds.
A nurse from VNA of the North Shore drops in, too, to check vital signs and administer flu shots.
"Most of our guests are not going to visit a doctor's office as it's just not part of their lifestyle," said Richard Lynch, deputy director of Community Action.
Gould noted that the average lifespan of a street person is 55.
"It's a rough life and they often succumb to things like pneumonia or alcoholism," he said.
Dennehy said she can count on Kevin Comeau of the Kevin B. Comeau Funeral Home to help.
"Kevin is my heart and soul and provides proper burial services," she said. "Often, we'll hold services upstairs in the sanctuary so that the street community can have closure."
Dennehy says she can't do it alone. She relies on the help of a host of support agencies, such as the state Department of Mental Health and Eliott Community Human Services in Lawrence to provide mental health services.
"The more collaboration you have, the more you can help," she said.
YOU CAN HELP
Community Action's Drop-in Center is currently seeking donations from the public to support its programs for the area's homeless and at-risk individuals.
Although the Wadleigh and Griffin White foundations provide the drop-in center with a majority of its funding, donations from the community are still important sources and help pay for the program's rent and utilities. The donated money also helps provide hot coffee, breakfast and bagged lunches, along with new socks, winter gloves and toiletries.
To donate, visit online at communityactioninc.org.