Thursday, October 6, 2011

When a father cries

The last couple of weeks we've been doing a lot of outreach at the welfare office, making sure families that are homeless or about to be homeless are getting the help they're supposed to be getting. 

Yesterday, a young man came to see us with one of our flyers in his hand.  He was desperate and didn't know what to do because he and his three year old son were homeless.

Tony was in jail when he received word that his wife had died and his son placed in foster care.  As soon as he was released, he moved in with his mother and got custody of his son back.  He started looking for a job, but as tough is that is for everyone right now, it's even tougher for a guy with a record.

His mother lives in subsidized housing and her own tenancy was soon at risk.  Tony moved in with his sister, where eleven people already lived in a three bedroom apartment, a quickly untenable situation.  His sister asked him to leave but Tony begged her to let his son stay.  That was four days ago.  He's worried that his son, who has scarcely known a truly secure moment in his life, is unwanted in his sister's household.

He sat at the table and his eyes filled with tears which spilled down his cheeks.  He'd wipe them away absently as he told his story.

I hope we pointed him in the right direction.  According to our compassionate bureaucracy, he and his son should be eligible for shelter.  He might be able to join the more than 5,000 Massachusetts families now living in congregate shelters, scattered site shelters or motel rooms.  He might even be eligible for a new program, HomeBASE, which aims both to intervene before homelessness and to place homeless families in temporarily-subsidized apartments so they can get back on their feet. 

I'm worried, though, for a couple of reasons. First, some caseworkers seem to be using the new program to reinterpret the rules for the older and still existing program, Emergency Assistance, telling families that shelter no longer exists except for a few narrow categories of homelessness.

But more than that, the HomeBASE  program itself was conceived in a spirit of optimism saturated with denial about the economic realities of our lives. Thousands more families and individuals are teetering on the edge of  homelessness right this very minute.

How we build political power out of this chaos is a question for another post but at least one piece of the answer has to be: don''t fade away in despair, don't give up out of fear. 

On Tuesday,  I got a call from a woman in management at the Liberty St. welfare office.

"Michaelann," she said, "there are two Arise people in our waiting room right now, talking to people while we're trying to help them qualify for emergency assistance."

"That can't be true," I said, "because they were both just here."

"No, my caseworkers say they're out in the waiting room right now."

'Hold on a minute," I said, and ran to see if I could catch one of them before he pulled out of the parking lot.  When I got back, the call was broken.   the next morning, I sent her the following email.

We were disconnected yesterday and it took me a long time to find a number to get back to you.  I was definitely feeling frustrated because I KNEW our outreach people were not still at the DTA office when you said they were; they'd been standing right in front of me five minutes before you called.  Sorry that I was cross in my phone message.  I don't like to see Arise accused of something we didn't do.
Today I checked with both members and they told me that they NEVER, not once, went inside the DTA office.  One said, "90% of the time we were outside and then some of the time in the foyer when it got too cold."  I completely believe him because that has always been our rule.

Maybe what you (or was it someone else, who told you?) saw was people in the waiting room, looking at and discussing the information we gave them.  Seeing as Arise folks look pretty much the same as people who go to the DTA office for help, it might have been easy to think that one of them was one of us.  (Actually, that's completely true, on an economic and spiritual level.)  But we were never physically in your office.

Maybe you could check back with the person who told you this, if you didn't see it yourself, and let her know.
 We're looking for people to help us cover the welfare offices and make sure the right information gets out to people in need.  We have a training scheduled for next Wednesday at 11 am.  If you want to help, give the office a call at 734-4948.

Photo from Allie's Dad's photostream at Flickr. Print Friendly and PDF

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