Thursday, February 9, 2012
Dear Homeless Couple: Yes, there IS something you can do for me!
Yesterday afternoon we get a call from a guy in a panic-- he and his wife have been renting a room in a friend's house and that morning, the city showed up, boarded up the house, and told him and his wife they had an hour to get out! Could we help? Where should they go? How could this happen? His wife was three months pregnant and he didn't want to be out on the street.
Fortunately for them, they'd found a way back into the house and were going to spend the night there, but he knew it was only good for that night.
I ask the guy-- let's call him Mike-- a couple of questions. Are they legal tenants? Well, they've been paying $100 a week to their friend, who isn't around much, but they have rent receipts. Is the house in bad shape? Had it been condemned for conditions? Well, some broken windows, and the utilities got turned off last week, but their friend said he'd be getting them turned back on in somebody else's name. My heart sinks a bit on that one, knowing that just the fact of a house being without utilities is enough to get a placed condemned, if only temporarily.
"The guy from the city said that the city owned the house! And we had no notice-- didn't know this was happening."
"Hate to say it, but your friend-- if he's really the owner-- has probably gotten plenty of notices. He's been taking your money knowing this was coming. And if he's not the owner, he's just been robbing you."
I get the address of the property, and the owner's name, then ask Mike guy if I can call him back-- want to try to reach a lawyer..
"The last time I called the Office for Housing about a condemnation, they said they didn't have any money to help tenants, but let me check on that, too," I say.
I reach Bernie Cohen in his office, describe the situation, and Bernie says that the city is obligated to give notice to legal tenants.
"OK, that might help," I say. Then I call the Office for Housing, and hear the same sad story as before: gee, sorry, no money to help with relocation.
I call Mike back.
"Look," I say, "I think your best shot is going to Housing Court tomorrow morning, going before the judge, and telling the judge your story. Maybe there's some legal angle I don't know."
"We've got what we could take of our stuff with us." (I just picture them trying to get through the courthouse metal detectors with all their bags.) "My wife Peg is tired."
"She can come and hang out here while you go to Housing Court," I say.
So this morning, Peg comes in. She is a slight, slender woman with sandy hair.
"Is Mike at Housing Court?" I ask her.
"No, not yet, he's a recycler, and he's bringing his scrap metal to Chicopee first so we have some money."
Later, we're trying to scrape some money together so one of our members, Jackie, who is volunteering for the day, can get a dollar item from the Burger King menu. We find $4.55 in various drawers and pockets.
"Want to get a sandwich?" I say to Peg.
"No, that's OK, you don't have to give me any money." But Jackie takes her in hand.
"Come on, let's walk over together," she says, and finally Peg goes with her.
Mike comes back.
"Are you going to Housing Court next?"
"Will it do any good?" He doesn't outright say no, but I can tell he is scared.
"I don't know," I say. "but it's worth a try. Look-- let me try to see if I can get a lawyer to help you," I say, knowing it will be almost impossible.
I call Joel Feldman, and he's too busy, but he tells me there's a state law that requires the city to provide relocation funds, and he cites me Chapter and Section of the Mass General Laws. I call Marion at Community Legal Aid, and get a little more of the picture, but they can't take the case on, either. Finally I call Bernie back.
"Bernie, is there any chance at all you can help out this couple? They're scared to go to Housing Court."
"Actually, I have two cases down there this afternoon, and if they come down, I can talk to them."
"Oh, My God, thank you so much," I say, and then I tell Mike and Peg. Their faces light up; I describe Bernie so they can find him, and they immediately set out.
I call the Office for Housing back.
"I've been looking into the situation for you," the woman says, "and you should talk to the chief housing inspector. He says the place has been condemned for months, the water was turned off months ago, and your couple aren't legal tenants but squatters."
"Well, they certainly thought they were legal tenants," I say. "And look-- I just found out that the city is legally required to provide relocation benefits for families displaced because of condemnation."
"Yes, but the city has no money."
"Well, I don't care if the Mayor has to take a pay cut," I say, and we both laugh, "the next time the city condemns a building you'd better be ready to help the tenants, or I'll take it to court." I'm trying to be cordial and dead serious at the same time.
I call the building inspector, who seems to be expecting me. He has the weary attitude of a cop who's been on the street too long. He explains the situation of their house to me, says the house was boarded up once before, and that my couple are not legal tenants.
"But where are they to go? They're very poor. And there's not much out there. So much housing has come off the market since the tornado, and even before, and nothing's coming back on. What are people like them supposed to do?"
"Relocate," he says. " Have they looked in Westfield? South Hadley? Chicopee? Housing is cheaper there."
So we go on like this for a while, not really getting anywhere, me talking about the Rainville, 44 units of affordable housing for formerly homeless people, and him talking about the River Inn, where people lived in squalor and which he happily condemned, him talking about the elderly people who cleaned debris from their homes after the tornado instead of waiting for people to help them, me talking about tenants who don't have that option.
"Look," he says, "it's only going to get worse. I've condemned 31 properties just since the first of the year, and what with foreclosures, I've got a lot more planned. What am I supposed to do? Let some homeless drug addicts burn themselves to death in a building with no heat, maybe killing some kids? Remember the eight fire fighters in Worcester who died?
"You just don't know what I see. I see whole families sleeping in basements, children right next to the boiler. people in attics. People living without water, without heat and lights. Addicts taking over buildings."
"I do know what you see," I say, my eyes closed, visualizing the children in the basement. "I see the same thing, only from the other end, when people come here to Arise."
Mike comes back from Housing Court to pick up his bags, and his eyes are smiling..
"We've got a week in the Bel-Air Motel in West Springfield," he says, "after that we're on our own. My wife's down at the bus station waiting for me. We have to be there by six."
"That's what the judge said?"
"No, we never even got to the judge, Bernie and this lawyer from the city worked it out with us in mediation. The city lawyer, she was really unfriendly."
"About my age, with long gray hair?"
"I know who you mean," I say.
He starts to leave then turns back and gives me an awkward hug.
"Thank you so much," he says. "I can't believe how much you've helped us. I'll be back tomorrow, but I just want you to know, if there's anything I can ever do for Arise, ever, I will." He runs to catch his bus and I'm alone for the first time in a long day.
Now I can be as pissed off as I want, without feeling like I might scare Mike and Peg away. I think about the city's de facto housing plan-- relocation?-- and the Governor's plan to limit access to family shelter even more. I think about the brutal cuts in HUD funding looming over our heads. And now I know exactly what I want Mike and Peg to do for Arise-- and for themselves.
I want them to get angry.
On Monday, April 2, we're having a rally against the criminalization of homelessness and poverty. We'll be joining dozens of cities in the U.S. and Canada in the National Day of Action for the Right to Exist. I want hundred of Mikes and Pegs to stand up and say, Enough is enough! If the city and the state don't have the will to find solutions, then the people will. There is no answer to anything that plagues us without housing.