Thursday, December 18, 2008

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.

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