Pillars of Light
The efforts of many dedicated, caring agencies seek to alleviate the plight of the Merrimack Valley’s homeless.
( Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine )
Brett Wood is one of the lucky ones — if you consider being blind in one eye and on disability to be lucky. With a black patch over his right eye and faded blue tattoos winding around his arms, the clean-shaven and muscular Littleton native, 55, shows only a few teeth when he grins.
But grin he does. And often. He’s on a mission to help people who are now in the same place he was in a few months ago: homeless. After sharing an apartment with his brother, who lost his job and then the apartment, Wood lived in a tent briefly before entering transitional housing.
Now in permanent housing, he spends his time volunteering on the streets of Lowell and at outreach centers for the homeless such as Under the Oak Day Shelter at Christ Church United, and Living Waters Center of Hope at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, both in Lowell.
Wood credits his success to the staff at the Lowell Transitional Living Center and his own determination. “They told me what I needed to do [to get housing], and I did all the paperwork in a day,” he says. He had also applied for housing two years earlier, so having that in his file, as well as being a veteran, helped hasten the process.
Not every homeless person is as fortunate. “What’s happening around poverty and homelessness in this country is heartbreaking,” says Deb Chausse, executive director of House of Hope, an agency in Lowell that provides shelter and affordable housing for homeless families in the Merrimack Valley.
“Homelessness is a very complex, multifaceted problem,” says Kretcha Roldan-Rodriguez, director of advocacy services at Lazarus House Ministries in Lawrence, an organization that offers a variety of services for the poor and homeless.
Chausse concurs. “Every day I see an increase in the number of people who are homeless,” she says. And the statistics agree with her — although it’s easy to see paradoxes in the numbers.
Between 2012 and 2013, according to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, homelessness declined in the U.S. as a whole, but 20 states saw increases, including Massachusetts.
This assessment reported 19,029 people in Massachusetts who were counted as homeless in 2013 — an increase of 1,528 between 2012 and 2013, making Massachusetts the state with the fifth highest increase in homelessness.
However, Massachusetts had a decreasing number of homeless adults living on the streets in 2013, according to the study, giving it a rank of fourth lowest of the unsheltered. Boston has one of the lowest numbers of unsheltered individuals of any large city in the U.S., according to the City of Boston’s 34th Annual Homeless Census, which was conducted on the night of Dec. 16, 2013.
That’s because Massachusetts is a “right to shelter” state, according to Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary for the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. “This means we are obligated to place every family who is eligible for the emergency assistance program into [an] emergency shelter that same day,” Gornstein says.
As of Aug. 24, 2014, more than 4,800 families with children and pregnant women were being housed by the Massachusetts Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program, approximately 2,000 of whom were in motels, according to “Basic Facts on Homelessness in Massachusetts and Across the Country,” a report by the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
Annual EA data collection shows that in 2013 homeless high school students made up approximately one-quarter of all identified homeless students, resulting in an estimate of over 37,000 homeless students enrolled in Massachusetts public schools.
The four “root causes” of homelessness in Massachusetts are: (1) poverty (2) eroding work opportunities (3) a decline in public assistance and (4) a shortage of affordable housing, according to “The Facts on Homelessness and Housing Affordability,” a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless.
“Massachusetts has a housing wage of $24.08 — 282 percent above minimum wage ($8.50),” according to Massachusetts-based Citizens for Adequate Housing (CAH). This is the minimum hourly wage a person must earn in order to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment, generally costing $1,200 or more per month in Massachusetts. According to CAH, a high number of low income families spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
When you add the above factors to life stressors — such as catastrophic illness, death of a spouse, job loss, natural disasters, divorce, mental illness (and lack of affordable mental health care), domestic violence, and substance abuse — it’s easy to see why the staffs at homeless agencies in the Merrimack Valley are working overtime.
“We’re like a GPS, trying to navigate the sometimes difficult roads to affordable housing,” says Jeanine Murphy, president of Emmaus Inc. in Haverhill. “Our focus is finding permanent housing solutions that go far beyond shelters.”
“…This is everyone’s problem,” says Andrew McMahon, director of DayBreak Shelter in Lawrence, which is run by The Psychological Center, an organization that cares for adults with mental health and/or addiction problems. “These people are not soup cans that you can label. They’re your father, your son, daughter, friend and neighbor.”
Joseph Glover, 30, is a clean-cut, well-mannered environmental consultant from North Andover who looks like he would be somebody you would be proud to claim as your son.
In early 2013, he suffered a psychotic breakdown. “I called an ambulance, but the police showed up instead,” he says. As a result of his interaction with police, he stayed in jail for 30 days and lost his job and apartment.
“If it weren’t for DayBreak [and its connection with The Psychological Center],” he says, “I don’t know where I would be right now.” His treatment for bipolar disorder seems to be working. And he plans to find a job and a place to live.
“I want to work my way off Social Security,” he says. “I really like being self-supporting.”
House of Hope
Lazarus House Ministries