Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tornado of homelessness

Hampden County is on a tornado watch....all I want is a soaking rainstorm and a break from the heat.  OK, that's passed, and now we have a rainbow-- a little like the temporary rainbow for some homeless families today.

Seems like as soon as I wrote that I haven't had much direct contact with homeless people recently, I made a liar out of myself.

Last week we at Arise for Social Justice heard from three different single homeless people about health conditions at Worthington St. shelter.  Dust from the shelter renovations, fans taken out of the shelter space and moved to the basement for the workers (does it have to be a choice?), bedbugs, scabies, and today, a suspected case of MRSA.  I've been trying to cut the shelter some slack, because the Friends of the Homeless corporation is finally getting near to finishing the new construction and renovations that former Mayor Ryan said would be finished two years ago (economic downturn, and all that.)  But this is getting way out of hand. We're trying to figure out what we should do.

Last night I saw a quick TV news story about two families threatening to camp out on the steps of the Liberty St. welfare office because they were homeless and being denied shelter by the Dept of Housing and Community Development homeless unit housed in the building.  Now, this is not a new story; Arise has worked with families in this situation for many years.  Has there been an improvement?  Well, DHCD is in charge of homelessness services instead of the Dept. of Transitional Assistance, but the staffperson is the same.  And I have to believe that the same unwritten rule continues to apply: deny as many as possible to keep the statistics as low as possible.  After all, you can't be counted as homeless if you aren't in a shelter or motel.

This morning I was taking the bicycling Students for a Just and Stable future  over to meet the youth-run Gardening the Community folks (they deserve their own post). I hadn't even had a chance to ask Arise organizer Liz if she'd heard about these two families when a woman from an agency I shall not name stopped at Arise and began to tell Liz there were now three or four other families, also denied shelter, who had joined the first two families.  The woman took our business card and a few flyers back down to  Liberty St.  and most of us left for the garden.  Half an hour later, Liz stopped at the garden, snatched up Dave and Louis, two of our members, and headed down to Welfare.

For the next several hours, Liz advocated, Dave consoled, Louis translated.  The DCHD staffperson came out of her office to tell the families that if they didn't leave right now, she was calling the police and then DCF to come and take their children.  Liz spoke to Western Mass legal Services three times and Gerry McCafferty at the Office for Housing to let her know what was happening.

"I'm calling because you said you would not let any family sleep out on the street," Liz said.

"Let me make some calls," Gerry said.

Liz came back at the office to make more calls, and  I answered the phone when Marsha Crutchfield from HAP called.  She asked how I was and I launched into telling her about the homeless families.  But it turned out she was actually calling to say that HAP would put families up for the night at a motel, and the agency was sending a van to welfare to pick them up!  Liz went back down to welfare to let the families know the good news.  At the end of a long day she went home, only to get a call from the father of one of the families-- the motel wanted a $20 deposit on each room and HAP wouldn't pay.  So she went back down to Welfare and paid the deposit.

At least one poor family was lost in the shuffle.  Yesterday some of our members made contact with a woman who needed help. She come up to the office this morning-- a Puerto Rican woman who may have been only in her fifties was raising her three grandchildren and had become homeless.  She'd already been to Welfare once and been told she wasn't eligible for assistance.I asked if they'd let her fill out an application for Emergency Assistance and she said no.  I told her to go back down to the office and insist she be allowed to apply.  Apparently she did, was denied again, and left in tears before anybody noticed.  I hope she's OK; I hope she comes back.

Six years ago, and for nearly two years, Arise had rented two, three bedroom apartments for families in exactly this predicament.  We ran it until we couldn't afford it anymore, until it broke us, really-- we wound up having to give up our office and operated out of people's houses for a year.  But hey-- we're not service providers, we're organizers.  Other agencies get the big bucks to provide shelter  and it's our job to make sure they do it.

We hear there's a big meeting tomorrow with DCHD, HAP and the City of Springfield.  We had better be invited.  Enough of this baloney.  Enough of the indifference, the threats and the cruelty that had children quaking in fear and parents in despair.  Enough.

Graphic: Banksey, from Chris Dever's photostream at Flickr.


Diane Nilan said...

Perhaps you and your cohorts might want to consider hosting our EPIC Journey this October. Will be coming your way and would love to collaborate. Check out our beginning FB page:

Thanks for what you do...D

Michaelann Bewsee said...

Diane, that would be fantastic. Let's keep in touch about this.