Thursday, December 18, 2008

Looking Beyond Main Street and Wall Street to Those Stranded on the Street: Pt 1

By Margaret DeJesus (

BOSTON--(Dec.18,2008) Kyla Middleton carried a heavy burden at a young age. When she walked the halls of her elementary school she appeared like any other fourth grader, but something gnawed at her beneath the surface.

“I felt like I always had something to hide,” said Middleton.

“It was tough seeing my classmates make plans. ‘Oh, you want to come to my house after school and hang out?’ ‘Yeah, sure what time?’” she acted out the scenario changing the inflection in her voice.

Like any fourth grader would, she longed to have her own play dates.

“I could never invite my friends over,” she explained.

Her “secret” was that she had no room to call her own and no home to live in. At nine years old she was homeless. Along with her mother and two younger brothers, she lived out of a small motel room in 2003 paid for by Massachusetts.

“There was always that little thing there that said you’re worse than everybody else,” she said dropping her arm by her side.

Middleton, who is now 14, stood tall before students at Emmanuel College on November 16 to educate them on how that nagging feeling of unworthiness can haunt so many homeless children and families.

“If the people that were actually homeless and know what it’s like don’t stand up and say anything, then how will anyone know anything about it?” said Middleton in an interview after her speech. “A piece of paper with statistics doesn’t tell you everything.”

Advocates say the number of homeless families has skyrocketed in Massachusetts, which has led many to once again be placed in motels due to overcrowded shelters.

According to Kristina Barry, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), approximately 640 families are currently housed in motels across the state.

“Homeless families are placed in motels only in emergency situations when there is no available shelter,” she said in an email.

The issue of homelessness in Massachusetts and across the United States does not seem likely to disappear soon despite well intentioned efforts by officials like Governor Deval Patrick to eliminate it. According to advocates, lack of affordable housing options, misguided public perceptions and the declining economy’s effect on the shelter system will make it extremely difficult to stop the cycle of homelessness.

“Hurricane Katrina showed that when a problem is so massive we, our governments, our charity systems, are not set up to deal with masses of people who have nothing,” said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), a nonprofit organization. “It was the initial red flag that our system for helping people is broken.”

The impact the foreclosure crisis will have on increasing the number of homeless may not be felt for some time according to Stoops. The people who have lost their homes “won’t become homeless overnight” and “may not join their ranks” for a couple of years, he said.

Stoops pointed out that along with the income they might be able to rely on, there is also the natural support system of family and friends. If that doesn’t work, the next steps could be living out of a car or renting a cheap motel room for a week.

“Their worst nightmare would be to become literally homeless or having to go to a shelter,” he said in a telephone interview.

BOSTON--(Nov.16, 2008) Cheryl Middleton and her daughter Kyla speak about how it felt to be homeless before students at Emmanuel College as part of the National Coalition for the Homeless' Speaker's Bureau.

A Shelter is Not a Home:Pt 2

By Margaret DeJesus (

As a single mother of three children, Cheryl Middleton and her oldest daughter Kyla had to do all they could to make the best of their situation. After losing her job and her house in 2003, Middleton reached out to the DTA. The family was placed in a motel for more than 10 months. Middleton couldn’t afford the rent at a market rate apartment and was on a long list for Section 8, a federal program that subsidizes rent and is designed to help low income families with rent.

“In the beginning I tried to pretend like it was a mini vacation with the kids,” she said. “But when you realize that it’s a place where you’re stuck, where you have to stay, it ain’t a vacation anymore.”

“I tried to do so many things every single day to make that hotel room feel like a home,” said Middleton’s daughter Kyla. “I even once tried to make Ramen noodles to make it feel like we had a home cooked meal,” she said explaining how the room didn’t have a kitchen.

Now Cheryl Middleton serves as a board member on various groups that address affordable housing issues in her community of West Medford and lives in an apartment with her family.

“Looking at those little faces everyday kept me going. They were my drive,” she said.

According to Middleton, homelessness costs in many different ways, but ultimately it costs your dignity and your pride.

Randy Eck knows this all too well.

Eck has been homeless seven times since 1992, the last time being in 2005.

“That’s a road I don’t want to go down again,” he said in his hoarse, raspy voice. A longtime smoker, his vocal chords never quite recovered after a severe cold he had a few years ago. The 40-year-old also suffers from cerebral palsy and chronic depression.

Eck now has his own apartment and works as the director of operations at Spare Change News, a newspaper designed for and sold by Boston’s homeless. In the cramped office located in the basement of Old Cambridge Baptist Church, in Cambridge, he answers the phone and distributes papers to those looking to make some cash as a vendor.

“There’s what you think it is and then there’s the way it actually is,” he said about spending time in the city’s homeless shelters.

Eck compared the shelter environment to the Mount Doom depicted in the Lord of the Rings films based on the popular novels by J.R.R. Tolkien.

“Sleeping with your wallet in the front of your pants can get uncomfortable after awhile,” he said matter-of-factly and with a laugh. He explained that most guests of shelters keep their belongings close by to prevent theft of what little they have.

According to Eck, people like himself who are not yet enrolled in a shelter’s program or system most likely will spend the night on a mat on the floor as there are not always enough beds.

“And you’re not guaranteed that the person sleeping right beside you won’t wet themselves in their sleep,” he added. Since it’s usually tight quarters, Eck said it was common for people’s tempers to flare up during the night.

“If you accidentally roll over into the guy next to you trying to sleep, he could snap and then you have yourself a fight at two in the morning,” he said.

Although he understands that “shelters have a lot of people they are trying to help,” unfriendly staff and rations on food and even toilet paper were nevertheless frustrating. He put down the liter of Mountain Dew he was gulping down and his eyes became watery.

“You begin to lose your humanity after a while,” he said.

As the December rain pounded against the window and the icy wind howled, Eck pointed out how on a night like this the lines outside shelters would be especially long. He was accustomed to lining up at 7 p.m. at the Kingston House in downtown Boston for a place to sleep, but by 7 a.m. it was back to the streets. He said some might head to “Sally’s”, the street slang for the Salvation Army, or “you could go to South Station and hang out.”

“That’s the part I never understood. Where am I supposed to go now?” he said.

Homeless Shelters Feeling the Effects of the Economic Decline:Pt 3

By Margaret DeJesus (

While more people struggle to make ends meet in the weak economy, homeless shelter directors worry about increased demands for space and less donations to run on.

“When corporate commerce fails like it is right now, you have people getting laid off and now they have new issues in their own life to deal with,” said Michael Fetcho, the Boston Rescue Mission’s director of community outreach.

Major wage earners who lost their jobs might “take care of their own immediate needs” and not be able to donate as much money to nonprofit organizations and shelters. Struggling businesses also might not be in a position to make larger gifts.

According to Fetcho most human service organizations raise about 50 percent of their money in the last three months of the calendar year, which includes the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

“Everyone thinks of giving in the holiday season. Offices have parties and people donate. The Salvation Army rings bells on street corners,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s wonderful but it all ends in January and the needs are just as great the rest of the year. We have to spend nine months chasing the other 50 percent.”

Fetcho said department stores can hold sales and promotions to recoup their losses in later months unlike shelters that rely on getting it right the first time.

“I can’t do Christmas again in February. If we come out of this quarter weak, there’s more pressure to raise money during the time when people are not thinking of philanthropy,” said Fetcho.

Shelters like St. Francis House and Pine Street Inn are already noticing a decrease in cash donations.

“Those who are concerned about their poor brothers and sisters seem to be volunteering and making food and clothing donations instead of giving money. The manpower is tremendously helpful, but with fewer monetary donations, it’s difficult for nonprofits to meet the increased need,” said Elizabeth Lund, the director of communications at St. Francis House.

According to Barbara Trevisan, Pine Street Inn has been forced to purchase more food. Companies that donate excess food have cut back their inventory and are preparing less to give away. She also said less food is coming from the Greater Boston Food Bank because their demand has gone way up.

Rosie’s Place, a women’s shelter in the South End, is serving more women as of late.

“Our advocates are seeing 50 new women each week. In September our food pantry distributed 1,400 bags of groceries, a 50 percent increase from the number of bags we distributed last September,” said Lori LaDuke, communications director at Rosie’s Place.

“We are seeing guests coming to Rosie’s Place who have lost their apartments due to foreclosures on the building and women who have lost their jobs and can no longer afford to pay rent, utilities and groceries,” said LaDuke in an email.

Pine Street Inn has already seen a 40 percent increase in the number of people seeking support there while St. Francis House is serving about 100 meals more a day than usual according to Trevisan and Lund.

“With every new wave of layoffs and foreclosures, people will become homeless and many more will teeter on the brink,” said Lund.

According to Kristina Barry of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, approximately 1,200 families have already entered shelters since the 2009 fiscal year began.

Advocates expect the number of homeless families and individuals to be even higher this year. Last year’s annual homeless census coordinated by Mayor Thomas Menino indicated 6,901 as the total number of homeless men, women and children in Boston. The number was an increase of 3.9 percent from 2006 while the number of homeless families jumped by 17 percent. The results from this year’s census held Monday night are being calculated.

Shelter advocates are concerned about state budget cuts during the country’s economic recession and how to absorb the increased demand for help it is causing.

“Up to this point, the shelters' budgets have been spared through the first round of state budget cuts. However, we fully expect that we will experience cutbacks when the governor has to make further cuts in January or March,” said Michael Libby, director of programs at the Somerville Homeless Coalition.

According to Libby, cuts could “translate into layoffs, less staffing and dramatically reduced hours of operation,” where guests may only be able to enter the shelter late in the day and leave earlier in the morning.

There isn’t any state funding available for winter overflow shelter beds this year according to Jim Greene, director of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission.

Although shelters were meant to be a transitional aid for people in need of emergency help, they have often been looked to as a more permanent solution.

“When you put cots and beds up after a natural disaster like a flood in the Midwest, the original intent is for short term relief so people can eventually return to housing,” said Greene in a telephone interview.

The failed economic and housing policies that resulted in too many people with too little income to afford high cost housing, unfortunately makes homelessness a harder situation to resolve he said.

“Homelessness isn’t short term or short lived so it’s become a long term problem,” he said explaining how the shelter system evolved into the longer term solution.

More Than Spare Change is Needed: Pt 4

By Margaret DeJesus (

“Part of the public perception of homelessness is based on what we’re all used to seeing, a guy drinking on a park bench or those stemmers begging for money,” said Eck, who spent years being homeless following his downward spiral from chronic depression.“You might look at them and think, ‘If you can shake a cup for eight hours a day then why can’t you go get a job?”

Stoops, NCH spokesman, said many people tend to briskly walk by the homeless asking for help in the streets because they know homelessness can happen to them too.

“The reason we ignore the homeless in the streets is because we know that could be us and America has this looking out for number one attitude, yourself and your own family, and everyone else be damned because you can only help so many people at a time,” he said.

During their speech to local college students, the Middletons of west Medford stressed that money wasn’t the only way to help the homeless.

“You don’t always have to give money every time you see someone on the street. All you have to do is say, ‘Hi or God bless you,’ and just give that person a sense of hope or dignity,” said 14-year-old Kyla Middleton.

Mentally ill, alcoholic or drug addicts are just a few adjectives that might come to mind for some when conceptualizing who makes up the homeless population.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, many cities are passing laws against sleeping and panhandling on the sidewalk.

“This can give the perception to teenagers that the homeless are low lives, scum and even the city wants to get rid of them,” said Stoops.

He referenced the infamous and disturbing “Bum Fights” DVD series popularized on the internet which depicts homeless individuals being coerced to do dangerous and outrageous acts for small amounts of money and alcohol. Stoops said many teenagers post videos to the web of their own acts of violence against the homeless.

“They’re (the homeless) there, they’re visible and they won’t be able to fight back,” he said.
Because of this negative perception, poverty can sometimes be conceived as a punishment for bad behavior or substance abuse.

“Homelessness was very great in the Great Depression, but drug and alcohol abuse was not,” said Brendan O’Flaherty, an economics professor at Columbia University in New York.

O’Flaherty based his 1996 book Making Room about the causes of rising homelessness around economic analysis of housing markets instead of merely explaining it in terms of destructive habits.

Middleton’s daughter said that a multitude of issues are connected to homelessness and need to be addressed.

“I love advocating to end homelessness but I think everyone is putting too much energy into one thing. There’s many other things, like education. In this country if you don’t go to college you probably won’t get a job. Or health care, if people can’t pay for it then they could end up on the streets,” she said.

Many advocates say that attention should be focused on providing affordable housing rather than depending on emergency shelters to help the homeless.

“A shelter is a cost we pay that doesn’t necessarily result in long term stability and economic opportunity that you want for families,” said Greene, Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commissioner. “Housing is an investment because it’s stable and allows a family to be a part of a neighborhood with schools, shops, and places to work.”

Eck, who experienced homelessness, also said that “more opportunities to be self sufficient are needed,” but recognized how human nature tends to prefer the quick fix.

“We all want to bandage the problem. If the pipe above my head starts to drip, I’ll put some tape around the hole. If it still drips, then I’ll get a bucket to put under it. And if it keeps dripping and dripping I’ll keep getting buckets instead of fixing the actual problem,” he said.

Governor Deval Patrick’s plan proposed last year to end homelessness by 2013 puts greater emphasis on providing permanent housing and taking steps to prevent people from slipping into homelessness. According to the 2007 Homeless Commission’s Report, “A key defining principle for the new system is targeting the right resources to the right people at the right time.”

“I think the worst economic circumstance since the Great Depression will present enormous challenges, but the level of commitment and partnership between city, state and local partners on this issue is extraordinary in Massachusetts,” said Greene.

According to Stoops of the NCH, a solution to ending homelessness comes down to more of a grassroots level nationwide.

“If average Americans are talking about it then officials will respond and provide leadership. I don’t care who does it, whether it be a celebrity, the Pope, Bill Gates, or Ted Kennedy. Someone has to make ending poverty a priority, because right now it’s not a priority,” he said.