Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Nobody wants these two beautiful children

I've been wanting to write about the Jobs With Justice 20th Anniversary event last Thursday, and also about the death of one of Arise's founders, which I found out about at the JwJ event, and I will, but first I want to write about the two beautiful homeless children who had been sleeping in the girl's father's car before they came to Arise today.

I hope they will forgive me for calling them children-- legally they are, not yet being eighteen. But they just felt so young and fragile to me-- no flesh on their bones.  I couldn't take my eyes off them.  

They were brought to Arise by a friend, Carlos, who has been volunteering with us.

"This is Mia and Alex," he says.  "They're homeless and they've been sleeping in a car.  They're seventeen, boyfriend and girlfriend. .  I told them to come to Arise because I knew you guys could help them."

My heart sinks.  The last thing we can ever do is promise someone we can find them shelter.  But we can at least listen and then do our best.

I talk to Alex first.

"Where were you living before you became homeless?" I ask..

I was in DCF custody." (That's the Dept. of Families and Children.)

"Don't they have a program for young people who are aging out of the system?"

"F**k them!" he said.  "DCF totally screwed up my life.  I don't wanna have anything to do with them."  I decided not to push,, because I did once help a young woman to get back under DCF supervision (not easy) but now was not the time.

"Do you have any family in the area?"

"No, I've been in the system since I was one. " he says  Long pause. "You just can't imagine.  I've been beaten, I've been burned, I was almost molested. DCF totally screwed me."

Next I talk to Mia.

"How did you become homeless?" I ask.

"My mom's new husband-- my stepfather-- is very strict," she says.  "He has a lot of rules, and I got kicked out."

We keep talking and she tells me that not too long ago, she was living in a domestic violence shelter with her mother.  I can't help wondering if her mom is now in a similar relationship to the one that brought her into shelter..

"You guys have a car?"

"No, we've been sleeping in my father's car.  He'd like to let us stay there, but his new girlfriend says no."

"Have you tried Worthington St. Shelter?"

"We did, but they told us we couldn't stay there because we're not eighteen, and they have lots of pedophiles there and stuff, and it wouldn't be good for us."  Damn, I'd forgotten.  (And where did Worthington St. refer them, if anywhere, I wonder?)

Next a couple of hours of leaving phone messages and getting callbacks.  Might they be eligible for EAEDC, a small income of about $300 a month for Elders, the Disabled, and Children?  Maybe if they can get into the educational programs at Mass Rehab.  Food Stamps?  Mia tells me that her mom is still receiving welfare for her, and she's still in the mom's food stamp budget-- is there any way she can get that money?  Food stamps yes, cash assistance no.  

Then calls to the only two teen shelters I know about-- SHINE at Gandara, but they are full, as usual, and the Safety Zone at the Center for Human Development, where there uis a glimmer of hope.  The woman I spoke with says she'll make some calls and see what she could do.  The teens CHD serves, those ages 14 to 17 are placed in a home with a family-- food, showers, a bed of their own-- but only for 21 days and, of course, not together.  My guess (but I'll find out) is that they provide some case management, but she also asks me if we will continue to work with them.  I say yes, and start wondering who might have a room in their house they'd let Mia and Alex stay in? 

 While Mia and Alex and I are waiting for CHD to call back, they make themselves something to eat in the back office (thank you, the person who brought the canned ravioli in today) and then they help staple copies of our Homeless Persons' Survival Guide.  They get to talk to some of the people sitting around our big table, and help staple copies of our Homeless Persons' Survival Guide.  I hear someone saying to Mia, "Well, at least you don't have any kids, and you're not pregnant.  Stay that way!"

CHD calls back; the woman has found places for both of them.  Thank you!  Can I get them to West Springfield by 3:30?  Yes, I can.  Mia and Alex are happy but also apprehensive.

We drive first to their father's car, where they have a few bags of clothes in the trunk, and then toward CHD.  Alex sees someone pushing a shopping cart full of cans.  "That's what Mia and I were doing in Hartford, to get food," he says.  The we arrive at CHD, where we wait a little awkwardly in the waiting room for the woman I've spoken with to come down.  There's an older Latina also waiting, who I only realize later is probably from one of the host families.

"Do you guys speak Spanish?" I ask.

"I do," Alex says, "her, not so much."  Mia smiles and shrugs a bit.

The CHD woman comes down.  We introduce ourselves and shake hands.  She shakes hands with Mia and Alex.  Then she says to me, "We can take it from here."

I feel a both a pang and a sense of relief.  .The three of us hug and they both say they'll keep in touch-- might even come see us every day.  I've given them $10 each so they'll have a bit of bus fare and can call each other. 

When I get back to the office, Carlos says, "I knew this was the right place to bring them!  I knew you could help them."

"It was luck," I say.  "I just made phone calls."  And that's what it was, pure and simple-- luck.  We know too well how easily it could have gone the other way.

Mia and Alex: struggling to overcome broken families, broken promises, broken communities, broken economy.. At seventeen they are pretty much blameless for the situation in which they find themselves.  But in six or seven years, if life doesn't quite measure up to the dreams Mia and Alex have right now, if getting out of homelessness and finding a place where the ground doesn't move under them somehow continues to elude them, then there will be plenty of people to judge them and talk about all their bad choices and how they could get ahead if they really wanted to.

I hope we see them again.  I hope they become part of our family.  But whatever happens, I wish them well..

Print Friendly and PDF

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

If even white guys are coming here.....

"Things must be getting bad out here," Jackie said, "if even white working guys are coming here for help."

Jackie was commenting on a guy who was working, but only part-time, who was looking for a room to rent-- under $400 a month, please-- because he's being put out of the room he's been renting in someone's house. 

She should have been here a few minutes ago, when a white guy in a suit came in to get one of our food pantry brochures.

The first couple of hours of today were relatively quiet but of course by 11 am., it was pretty non-stop.

We talked to three families today who have been determined to be not eligible for emergency shelter-- not, of course, that that makes them any less homeless.
-- A single dad with a 16 month old daughter who left shelter on January 31st, and won't be eligible until a year has passed. (White.)
-- A single mom with a 3 year old boy who left shelter 5 months ago after being assaulted by another resident.  Not eligible.  (White.)
-- A single dad with three kids who is working fulltime but lost his apartment after an illness.  He's sleeping in his car while the kids stay with his ex-girlfriend, who keeps saying, "When are you getting these kids out of here?" He's over-income for shelter.

We tell them what we can.....one of our members took the woman with the 3 year old home for the night.

Carl came in.  He was hit with a brick two days ago when out on the street and his assailant stole $9, all that he had.  He had a concussion but no money for the prescriptions given him.

So what is to be done?  I've been working on the Freedom of Information Request to the state to get information about how many people have been banned by Friends of the Homeless who may be out on the street.  And huge numbers of families have no place to go.  But nobody wants to help them, because they can't get paid by the state to do it.

Got a few other things done.  Members and volunteers made more copies of our Homeless Survival Guide. We made outreach calls for Ayyub's next court appearance on Friday.  I'm going to the Indian Orchard Citizens Council meeting to talk about Solutia and air pollution.

The photo is from our demonstration at the Econolodge last Friday.

Print Friendly and PDF

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A rat in the pool: Does protesting injustice make a difference?

A few things of note from yesterday:

I missed a call from a woman from the Econolodge welfare motel, who had just taken a photo of a rat in the motel's swimming pool......I hope to reach her today and will post her photo if I can.

Then we got a call from the Chicopee Police Department-- it was pretty noisy in the office, but I'm pretty sure the caller said he was Police Chief Charette.  He wanted to let us know that the Econolodge owner had called and, not surprisingly, we are NOT allowed on the Econolodge property.  The chief was concerned about where we would stand for our protest, as the street is very busy and there is no sidewalk. He said the owner felt like he was being unfairly targeted.  He said the owner has plans to tear down the motel and build a Comfort Inn.  More power to him.

Of course the Econolodge is not our primary target-- it's the head in the sand homeless and housing policy of the Department of Housing and Community Development.  It's always tricky protesting a welfare motel, because the last thing we want to have happen is for DHCD to close motels as long as they are needed.  This is what happened two years ago (not as a result of protests) when DHCD policies about shelter eligibility lead to a denial rate of homeless families of about 60%.  (We'll have to make sure we ask for the current denial rate in our FOIA request.)  But assuming for a moment that the denial rate is the same, and knowing there are about 4,200 families in shelters and motels, then we can assume there are close to 11,000 homeless families in Massachusetts.You understand that DHCD is not saying these families aren't homeless-- just that they don't meet the eligibility criteria.

We did hear yesterday that 100 new shelter beds are coming online in Western Mass, to be managed by the Center for Human Development and the New England Farmworkers Council.  That's good news.  But it's still a bandaid on a bandaid. If we can't stop the market trend of ever-increasing rents, then we're going to need permanent subsidies and massive investment in new housing.

Last but scarcely least, we got a call yesterday from staff at Worthington St. Shelter, saying they had "good news" for Lisa, and that she should get in touch.  Now all we have to do is find her.

Print Friendly and PDF

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Worthington St. Shelter put Lisa's life at risk

I said in my last post that we'd been worried about Lisa, a homeless woman we hadn't seen in nearly a week.  At 5 pm today she came to the Arise office.  She was crying, saying she was not doing too good.  I asked where she'd been staying and she said, "On the street." 

Jackie said she'd call Worthington St. Shelter and plead for them to let her in.

"They won't let me in," Lisa said, "because the police brought me there last night at midnight and they turned me away anyway.  Worthington said I was banned."

"Why did they say you are you banned, Lisa?"

"Because I stole a scoop of Cremora when I was there a month ago."

What I knew had happened a month ago was that she had applied to get in, but staff told her she would have to go to detox first.  So she'd spent the whole of the next day at our office, calling detox every hour, as she'd been directed, but they never had a bed for her.  I emailed Bill Miller, Director, about her to ask why she couldn't stay at the shelter and make her calls to detox from there?  Bill said that was entirely possible-- and yet, she was still being turned away.

Sure enough, when Jackie called, staff said her case was "under review" but that she was still banned.

We still  had a lot of folks still in the office.  Carl, the guy sleeping under a bridge, had turned up about 4 pm.,  bringing a young homeless woman with him.  They were hungry.  Fortunately, Cynthia Melcher had brought us some food earlier in the day, so they cooked something up on the hotplate in our back office.  Two of our members were there, and they both took me aside and asked what I thought of their taking Carl, Lisa and Carl's friend home with them for the night.  (This could be a long discussion, but on a night when the temperature will fall to the low 30's, there is only a short answer.)

Lisa had fallen asleep sitting up in a chair and for a while had been snoring deeply.  But when I went to shake her awake and tell her the good news, I couldn't rouse her.  I wasn't even sure she was breathing!

Folks rallied around while I called 911, who connected me with the ambulance service.  Via instructions from the dispatcher, we got her on the floor, determined she was breathing although shallowly, and then she started to cough, deep and phlegmy, and rolled on her side.  When the paramedics arrived, they managed to get her to her feet and they walked to the ambulance. 

I thought, at least she'll have a place to sleep tonight.  I thought, what if she hadn't come here and had gone to some doorway in the city-- would she have been alive tomorrow?  I realized my blood was boiling; in fact, the office was full of concerned, angry people. 

I asked Liz what I could possibly  say to Worthington St. shelter staff that wouldn't get me accused of making a threat.  She suggested I phone in a report on the status of Lisa.  So I did.  All I said was, "I am calling to give you a status update on Lisa, the woman you turned away from shelter tonight.  She collapsed in our office and was taken away by ambulance.  You understand, this is the woman you turned away.  She could have died."  They hung up on me-- it must have been the barely controlled rage in my voice. 

Earlier today I talked with a Worthington St. resident who said things were rotten at Worthington-- that favoritism was rampant, that Worthington only wanted "the cream of the crop" of homeless people, that people were turned away night after night.  He and I will talk more later this week.

Rose Evans at the Division of Housing Stabilization at DHCD did, indeed, call me back today.  She told me that if I wanted information about the number of people on Worthington St.'s banned list, i would have to submit a Freedom of Information request.  She said it was their policy..  I said, wasn't it more costly and staff-intensive to use a FOIA, instead of just giving me the information?  She said it was their policy.  I asked if, by the way, she could give me the figure for the number of families in shelter? (I know the motel numbers because they are posted on the DHCD website; as of Tuesday night, 2,120 families were in motels.) She said if I wanted that information, to put it in a FOIA, which is really ridiculous, because it's pretty common knowledge among providers that the number of families in  shelters about equal the motel numbers.  But still, OK, I'll put it in a FOIA.  I made a few calls to statewide allies and asked them if while I was at it, was there anything that they wanted to know from DHCD?  

We've decided our demonstration at the  Econolodge will be on Friday at 1 pm.  We'll save Worthington St. for next week.

Print Friendly and PDF

Shelters, motels bulging at the seams with no end in sight

Today was just incredibly hectic at Arise (not that this is unusual). We talked with four currently homeless families, all calling from the Springfield or Holyoke welfare offices, and all being told they're not eligible for shelter, and one homeless woman with two kids who is placed at the Econolodge in Chicopee in a room that has bedbugs.

  • One quite pregnant 18 year old was told she needed proof of pregnancy.  Liz took care of her by providing a list of places that would do same-day pregnancy tests.  You'd think the Dept. of Housing and Community Development (the actual providers of shelter in Massachusetts, but housed at the Dept. of  Transitional Assistance offices)would have a list like this together by now.
  • I talked to a man who has custody of his 16 month old son but he was being denied shelter because he and the child's mother were in a homeless shelter for the month of January.  We got Community Legal Aid and Mass Justice Project involved in his case, but it doesn't look good.
  • Another woman and her one child left North Carolina (she had friends up here) after three incidents of being battered by her husband and having the police called made management decide not to renew her lease.  Doesn't look good for her, either-- she should have stayed in her apartment post-lease and forced her landlord to evict her, so she wouldn't fall in the category of having "abandoned" her housing, but how was she to know?  She's coming to the office tomorrow so she can have police reports faxed to Arise.
  • The one I feel worst about (at the moment) is a woman with three kids who probably is eligible for shelter, but the documentation DHCD is asking for is lengthy, and hard to gather when you have 3 kids, no car, and four suitcases to lug around.  I was going to tell her to ask for "presumptive placement" but didn't write down her phone number because by that point I was too utterly disorganized.  She didn't call me back. 
Why was I disorganized?  It shouldn't have happened but our senior aide was out today so when the phone rang, I just answered it.  I could have called one of the three very kind members/volunteer advocates or asked Jackie, Terrette or Tina,  who were trained by us a few weeks ago to do intakes and who were working on collating our next homeless newsletter, but I forgot!  And of course as it gets later in the afternoon, the window is closing on being able to get folks into shelter for that night, so you just tend to try to act fast.  I'll do better tomorrow.

The rest of my day, and much of Liz's day,  was taken up with figuring out if we were going to have a demonstration tomorrow at the Econolodge and in trying to reach the "policy people" who can answer some essential questions if they would only choose to do so.  More on that part later.

Last week a woman called me from the Econolodge, one of DHCD's motels for homeless families, saying she was overrun with mice in her room.  I told her to call the Chicopee Board of Health, which she did ; the BOH contacted the motel, and they moved her into another room-- but this morning she and her daughter had numerous "bites" which she could only assume were bedbugs. 

I told her maybe it was time for us to go picket the Econolodge (if that was OK with her) but that we needed to do some research first and I'd call her back.  So Liz called the Chicopee Board of Health and I called MJP to doublecheck on the number of "noncompliances" a motel resident can have before being terminated-- it's one, with termination on the second (you get one more chance in a shelter) and to make sure that participating in a First Amendment activity wouldn't count as noncompliance for motel residents (should be OK). The Board of Health had some interesting things to say.  Apparently they act quickly on complaints and ask for written proof the complaint has been resolved.  Seems like the Econolodge is certainly no worse than many other "welfare motels" and is better than some.

I talked to my contact at the motel again and she mentioned how Econolodge employees provide a shuttle van a few times a day which drops people at the Springfield bus terminal so they can look for work!  This is NOT required by its contract with DHCD as far as I know.  (This doesn't help my friend; one child leaves for school at 9 am, another at 1 pm, and then the first one gets home from school at 3 pm, so she has exactly a two hour window to be out looking for work.  Motel and shelter residents are not allowed to babysit for each other.)

"Look," I told her, "in this case, the problem is not the motel-- the problem is that there's not enough shelter and not enough affordable housing.  We can still come picket, but let's make DHCD the target."

So looks like we'll be doing this on Thursday..  I'll post on Facebook and email the time.

As of Monday night, there were 2,122 families in Massachusetts being sheltered in motels.  Add the number of families actually in shelter, and we're over 4,000 homeless families being sheltered.

I wonder if religious communities in each town where families are in motels could mobilize to help them meet some of their basic needs?  I wish I could say Arise has the resources to organize this.

Meanwhile, homeless single people are also much on our minds.

We've been worrying about Carl, a homeless STCC student who has been sheltering himself under a bridge.  Haven't seen him in a week.  And we're worried about Lisa, who was sexually assaulted on the streets last year, and who we haven't seen since last Wednesday.  I know she was trying to get to Westfield, and last Friday, a news article said a woman had been sexually assaulted by a man who had offered her a ride home.  Was it her?

I have been trying to get a list of people both permanently banned and banned for a year from Worthington St. Shelter for the last three weeks.  I asked the director, Bill Miller, to let me know the numbers (not the names) so we could get a sense of who's out in the community and unsheltered.  But apparently he has no intention of doing so.  I asked two of his board members if they could get the numbers, and Bill said he would provide them, but he still hasn't done so.  (I did hear that he will provide names of banned people to Gerry McCafferty, Office for Housing, so they can be prioritized  for Housing First-- and I know that wouldn't have happened without our badgering.) 

This is no academic exercise.  We hear that Juan Rivera, who was crushed to death last month while sleeping in a dumpster, was on the list of banned individuals.  How many people are sleeping out on the street?  While the "banned" numbers will not exactly correlate with street homelessness, it gives us a ballpark.  And seeing as we know of two rooming houses, housing more than 100 people, were recently closed in Springfield, we know that the availability of affordable housing in Springfield is NOT increasing.

I've been calling Rose Evans, Associate Director for the Division of Housing Stabilization at DHCD, twice a day for the last seven business days.  She can get this information for us if she ever chooses to return my call.  (UPDATE: I decided to call her before 9 am just now, and she actually picked up the phone.  She says she will get back to me by the end of the day.)

Just what are we to do about this insane situation? Unless you're in the low-income community, you just have no idea who unstable our whole community has become.

I want to thank those people who said they'd be willing to assist with a building takeover (I'll get back to you all personally later today).  But we're definitely looking for the right place!  I've been talking to Catholic Charities about church-owned property that is vacant-- there's a LOT of it!  WHY isn't it being pressed into service for homeless people.

Christina has been holding homeless committee meetings at the Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen, 35 Chestnut St.  The next meeting is tomorrow at 1 pm, and the meeting after that is Wednesday, November 20.  But you don't have to wait that long to get involved.  Call Arise at 734-4948.

Print Friendly and PDF