Tuesday, November 5, 2013

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)
  • 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.

Community response for families in motels?

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