Noelle Swan

Archive for the ‘Social Issues’ Category

We Are All In The Dumps: Remembering Maurice Sendak’s Fiction on Homelessness

In Poverty, Social Issues on May 25, 2012 at 3:02 pm

This article first was published by Spare Change News on May 18, 2012.

Maurice Sendak was being driven through Los Angeles in the early 1990s. It was the kind of journey into darkness found in his children’s books, only more real and scarier.

The nation was struggling to emerge from the recession that had followed a worldwide stock market crash in 1987. Big banks reported record profits while major corporations announced massive layoffs.

As Sendak’s car pulled up to a stop sign, he looked out the window and noticed a cardboard box on the sidewalk. Soon, he saw wiggling feet sticking out from under the box. Looking closer, he noticed the face of a child.

Arrested by the stark contrast of invisible children living in boxes at the feet of excessive wealth, Sendak suddenly found meaning in the line of a nursery rhyme that he had been grappling with for years. “And the houses are built without walls.”

The rest of that verse, coupled with another obscure rhyme from Mother Goose, became the cryptic scaffolding for one of the first picture books addressing child homelessness. Thus was born perhaps his darkest and most strangely hopeful book, “We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy.”

Famous for his depiction of a journey through the rage, fear, and loneliness of a child’s tantrum in “Where the Wild Things Are,” Sendak was acutely aware that not all children had such a cozy home in which to tangle with the often overwhelming emotions of childhood.

The dark and surreal plot of the book follows two street-tough kids, Jack and Guy, through a cardboard shantytown filled with children in rags. The pair of ruffians loses a litter of kittens and a bald “little kid” to giant, sinister rats in a card game. The rats haul the kittens and the little kid off to St. Paul’s Bakery and Orphanage.

The moon takes pity and carries Jack and Guy to the fields of rye outside St. Paul’s where they find the little boy. Guy stops Jack from hitting the little kid and suggests they feed him instead. The moon transforms into a cat and leads Jack and Guy into St. Paul’s to rescue the kittens.

Jack and Guy return to their cardboard village where they vow to raise the little boy, “as other folk do.”

The rich two-page illustrations are layered with social commentary. Many of the street children are clad in newspapers, others uses them as blankets. On one page of the book the papers advertise expensive real estate, and on the next, headlines read, “Chaos in Shelters,” “Famine in the World,” and “Leaner Times, Meaner Times.”

“While most of his books weren’t overtly political, I think by the time he arrived at ‘We Are All in the Dumps’ he just let it go and said whatever he wanted to say,” says longtime friend John Cech, an English professor at the University of Florida and the director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature and Culture.

Cech first met Sendak while studying children’s literature at the University of Connecticut when Sendak came to speak to one of his masters’ classes. The two became friends, keeping in touch over 40 years.

Cech says that Sendak spoke of the period when he wrote “We Are All in the Dumps” as a difficult time. “Friends of his were dying all over the place.”

As a gay man active in the homosexual community, Sendak had many friends touched by the AIDS epidemic. One of the newspaper headlines featured in the book reads, “Jim Goes Home,” referring to the AIDS-related death of his good friend James Marshall, author of the award-winning “George and Martha” books.

Some, including Cech, have speculated that the bald little boy in “We Are All in the Dumps” is a child suffering from AIDS-related complications.

While some may be uncomfortable introducing such themes to young children, Sendak never shirked an opportunity to show the grittier side of life.

“Tell them anything you want, but tell them the truth,” Sendak once told an HBO film crew.

As a child, Sendak was confronted with many harsh truths. A gay, Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression is bound to hit some bumps in the road.

Cech recalls Sendak telling him of tragic childhood memories that went beyond the typical struggles for pecking order and penny candy.

A young Sendak was playing ball with a friend, when he bounced the ball out of the friend’s reach. His friend chased after the ball and into the street where he was struck by a car and killed.

Many of Sendak’s family members were killed in the Holocaust while he was a young child. Tragedy was just as much a facet of life for young Sendak as any adult.

Cech says that children see tragedy every day.

“Kids know that their classmates are abused; they see the bruises. They know who is on food stamps. Kids know what happens to other kids. Kids see those things, they endure those things, but they don’t talk about them because they are simply a part of life.”

Books such as “We Are All in the Dumps” give children the space and permission to talk about such issues.

“[We Are All in the Dumps] is a call to look around, to care, and to see,” says Daryl Mark, coordinator of children’s services at the Cambridge Public Library.

Despite the disturbing imagery depicting hunger, poverty, and homelessness throughout the book, Mark sees hope and kindness in the story.

In the end of the tale, Jack and Guy take in the little kid and care for him. The final image of the three children sleeping on the street, the little kid curled up in Jack’s arms, is at once heartwarming and heartbreaking.

“To me, what’s hopeful is the sense of kindness even though there’s not a resolution to the poverty, the hunger, the homelessness, or the vulnerability,” Mark says.

While “We Are All in the Dumps” is nearly twenty years old, the issues raised in the book persist today.

In Massachusetts, 20,000 children live in homeless shelters or state-subsidized motel rooms, a number that fails to include families living in cars or teens living on the street.

Perhaps we are all in the dumps with Jack and Guy, after all.

NOELLE SWAN is a freelance reporter.

“All in the Dumps”
“We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy” is Maurice Sendak’s interpretation of two Mother Goose nursery rhymes. He first came across the verses while helping folklorist Iona Opie select verses to convert into children’s books. These two rhymes lingered in his mind for years before he decided to put them together into a picture book.

We Are All in the Dumps

We are all in the dumps, for diamonds are trumps,
And the kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit, the moon’s in a fit,
And the houses are built without walls.

Jack and Guy

Jack and Guy went out in the rye,
And they found a little boy with one black eye.
Come, says Jack, let’s knock him on the head,
No, says Guy, let’s buy him some bread.
You buy one loaf and I’ll buy two,
And we’ll bring him up as other folk do.

Minimum Wage Buys Less Than it Used To

In Poverty, Social Issues on May 18, 2012 at 9:00 am

This article was first printed in Spare Change News on May 4, 2012.

At 24 years old, Michaud, is not backpacking abroad, sharing an apartment with friends, or beginning to build a professional resume.

He is working 30 hours a week selling stuffed animals for $9 per hour in order to help his mother, a certified nursing assistant, support his three younger siblings. As it is, he says that his family lives from paycheck to paycheck. College has been out of reach for him and likely will be for his siblings.

And Michaud makes more than minimum wage.

Minimum wage in Massachusetts is currently set at $8 per hour. According to labor groups and several legislators, this rate, set back in 2008, is a far cry from a fair wage. Proposed legislation sponsored by Senator Marc R. Pacheco (D) of Taunton and Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral (D) of New Bedford would change that by incrementally increasing the minimum wage first to $9.50 per hour this July and then to $10 by July 2013.

Such an increase would be welcome news to not only the 127,000 Massachusetts wage earners currently earning the bare minimum wage, but also to nearly 200,000 additional low wage workers, like Michaud, earning less that $10 per hour.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to survive even with a decent middle class wage, forget about minimum wage,” says Senator Pacheco who first introduced the bill to the Senate in January 2011. “We live in one of the highest cost states in the country. We are seeing an increase in the wage gap in the state and this is an attempt to control that gap.”

The cost of living in Massachusetts is in fact higher than many other states. CNBC’s annual analysis of America’s Top States for Doing Business reported Massachusetts as having the tenth highest cost of living.

However, the cost of doing business is equally high.

Raising the minimum wage could increase that burden, says Jon Hurst, long-time president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “We need to think carefully in order not to put local employers and therefore local employment at a disadvantage in Massachusetts.”

Mandatory health care coverage and required overtime pay for Sundays already add state specific costs to doing business in Massachusetts.

Hurst worries an increase in minimum wage will either force small business owners to reduce the hours of their employees or increase costs at a time when local businesses are struggling to figure out how to compete with low-cost online shopping alternatives.

Michael Kanter owns Cambridge Naturals, a natural product retailer in Cambridge’s Porter Square. He says he already pays all of his 15 employees at or above $10 an hour and attributes his low staff turnover to offering what he considers a respectable wage.

His business can support that rate of pay, though he recognizes there may be some that cannot without cuts in staffing or increasing prices.

Kanter sees a valid struggle on both sides. On the one hand, “people can’t afford to live at that rate of pay” ($8 an hour). On the other hand, “on a small business level you sometimes feel like you are getting beat up.”

Still, Kanter advocates for an increase in the minimum wage. “We have to figure out how to bring retailers along because we have to make it so that people can afford to live in society.”

Some argue that raising the minimum wage could be mutually beneficial to both employer and employee.

When low-income workers’ wages increase, so does their spending, which in turn boosts the local economy, according to a report published by the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank examining economic policy that impacts low and middle income workers.

Representative Cabral—who co-sponsors the version of the bill currently being weighed in the House of Representatives—believes increasing the minimum wage could improve the economy in other ways as well.

Many earning minimum wage, especially single parents with two or more children, need supplemental assistance from the state many social service programs. In recent years, the state has been struggling to provide needed support to the increasing number of residents that qualify for assistive services.

“If someone works, they should be paid a wage that enables them to afford putting food on their table without having to apply for public assistance,” said Cabral.

For many single parents and dual earner families, that is not the case. Teetering on the poverty line makes it difficult to take steps to secure a better future for their children.

“When we talk about people making $8-10 per hour, higher education is not on the horizon because they don’t have the ability to make ends meet just with the basic needs of groceries, gas, getting to and from work, putting food on the table, and taking care of their children,” says Jason Stephany, spokesperson for MASSUniting, a local community and labor advocacy organization.

Stephany advocates for any increase in minimum wage, calling it long overdue. He adds that he hopes the legislature will also pass a second component of the legislation, which would require continued and automatic adjustments of minimum wage based on the Consumer Price Index, a measurement of cost of living increase issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Senator Pacheco says that he pushed for an automatic increase during legislative discussions leading up to the past three minimum wage increases, but each time, that portion of the bill is weeded out before being signed into law.

A failure to adjust minimum wage with inflation has been a consistent problem since the late 1960s, says Noah Berger, director of the Mass Budget and Policy Center, a non-partisan organization that produces policy research, analysis, and recommendations as they relate to low and middle income workers.

“Over the last couple decades, incomes at the high end of the spectrum have gone up pretty dramatically and middle incomes have gone up a little bit. Minimum wage has actually gone down,” Berger says.

MassBudget published a report earlier this month indicating in today’s dollars, a minimum wage earner in 1968 actually earned $5000 a year more than a minimum wage earner today.

Both Senator Pacheco and Representative Cabral say that they will continue to strive to bring the minimum wage back in line with inflation. If the legislature fails to pass the bill this session, they say they will reintroduce it first thing next session.

Keeping House: Local Organizations Collaborate to Help Boston Residents Stay in Their Homes Post-Foreclosure

In Poverty, Social Issues on April 20, 2012 at 4:37 pm

This article was first published in Spare Change News on April 20, 2012.

Photo Credit: Noah Fournier

When Jeril Richardson checked out of the hospital after he was hit by a car in 2009, he returned home to find that his landlord had not been keeping up with mortgage payments and the bank was foreclosing on his Hyde Park home.

Canvassers knocking on his door told him about City Life Vida Urbana, a community organization that would help him to fight to stay in his home. Nearly three years later, Richardson still lives in the house, pays rent to the bank, and is saving to purchase the property.

Every weekend, students and community volunteers from Project No One Leaves hit the streets in an effort to reach tenants and homeowners facing foreclosure to inform them of their rights during and after the foreclosure.

“We try to get there before eviction agents come knocking and telling them to leave immediately,” said Chris Larson, senior at Tufts University who helped to coordinate a chapter of No One Leaves at Tufts.

In recent years, keeping up with new foreclosures has become a daunting task, said Chas Hamilton, a third-year law student and current president of the board for Project No One Leaves at Harvard Law School. “In a given week, there might be 30 new foreclosures listed in Boston proper.”

Click here to read the full story.

Northeastern Students Promote Literacy in Family Shelter

In Poverty, Social Issues on April 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm

This article was first printed in Spare Change News on March 23, 2012 and posted online the same day.

Photo courtesy of Noah Fournier.

Nine college girls, one professor, one photographer, and a Spare Change reporter spill out of a tiny elevator and into the lobby of Families in Transition, a temporary shelter for families awaiting housing at the Huntington Avenue YMCA in Boston.

“Why don’t you go get Sebastian?” Professor Therese O’Neil-Pirozzi asks Ella Besas, one of her volunteers.

Besas grins. “Sebastian?” Her voice betrays her excitement. “Oh my God! He’s so cute,” she squeals before dashing down the hall to return with a toddler gripping her hand.

Besas and her peers have come to work with Sebastian and other children in the shelter as part of Northeastern University’s Homeless Shelter Story Telling Group. For fourteen years, O’Neil-Pirozzi has brought speech and language pathology majors into family shelters to help instill a love of reading, expose the children to stimulating language and literature opportunities, and model strategies for parents and shelter staff to further promote language and literacy.

Having previously worked with people experiencing homelessness through her church, O’Neil-Pirozzi felt strongly about continuing that tradition when she joined the faculty of Northeastern University. “I wanted to continue doing something that was important to me personally and that would be helpful professionally to my students.” She came up with a weekly storytelling group for children living in shelter.

For Besas, participation in the program has given her a valuable opportunity to practice skills taught in the classroom. She says that her first time volunteering, she found herself in a little over her head. Assigned to a child with a severe speech impediment, she had difficulty understanding him. She says that O’Neil-Pirozzi stood by her and supported her throughout the entire session. Later she learned that the child has cerebral palsy.

O’Neil-Pirozzi and her volunteers rarely know much about the children participating in the program. She checks in with shelter director David Tavares each week to get an idea of how many children in each age group might be attending that week. Participation is voluntary, so there is no guarantee how many of those children will actually join the group. Tavares may provide ages and first names, but no information about skills. Any information O’Neil-Pirozzi gets has been gathered during previous sessions.

Tonight is Besas’ third night visiting the shelter. She and two of her classmates are working with Sebastian, a verbal 2-year-old boy. Besas’ team met in O’Neil-Pirozzi’s lab before the session and designed a lesson plan around a picture book about rain to go along with the gloomy weather. Each of the three college students took turns reading the book to Sebastian, stopping frequently to ask him questions and encourage him to express his growing vocabulary. Sebastian calls out details from the illustrations—he especially likes the police officer.

In a separate room, three more college students sit around a kidney- shaped table with a slender 6-year-old boy with a buzz cut and paper- white skin. His mother has asked that he not be identified so we’ll call him Armend. The group has just finished reading “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss, and one of the volunteers is trying to explain the definition of the word rhyme. After giving a few examples of words that do rhyme, she asks him, “What about plane and pie, do they rhyme?”

Armend pauses a moment. “Puh, puh, puh,” he says under his breath, then answers more clearly, “Yes.”

“They do both start with P,” one volunteer offers, “but they don’t really rhyme.” She continues to repeat that rhymes sound alike.

Armend’s brow knits tighter causing a thin blue vein across his right temple to throb slightly.

O’Neil-Pirozzi quietly slips into a chair between two of the volunteers. “Can I play?” she asks before coming up with a game to illustrate rhyming sounds. She and her volunteers play with new ways to demonstrate the concept. In the end, Armend never quite gets it, despite seemingly endless attempts to frame it differently for him—Pirozzi even solicits the help of this reporter and former teacher for some fresh ideas. By the time O’Neil-Pirozzi announces the session’s end, he has struggled for over half an hour trying to grasp the concept. Rather than showing relief at the break, he groans, “Awww!”

Later, one of the students working with Armend, Lynne Crispo, a third-year speech language and pathology student reflects on working with him. She says that she has been impressed by just how much Armend wants to learn. “He’s so excited and interested in everything that you are doing.” After the session, Crispo brainstormed with her peers and O’Neil-Pirozzi about different approaches they might try with Armend next time they visit. That is, if he is still there.

O’Neil-Pirozzi’s experiences working with children living in shelter led her to suspect that homelessness itself might put children at risk for language development delays and literacy delays, but she was unable to find much research on the subject. Following up on her hunch with her own research, she has found preliminary evidence that she says confirms her suspicions. She says early language and literacy delays can lead to educational challenges and failures later in school. She is currently seeking additional participants to include in her study.

Additionally, O’Neil-Pirozzi believes that parents living in shelters also have a higher risk for language disorders than the general population. “We know that there is a higher incidence of depression amongst adults living in shelter and depression can effect cognitive and language abilities. Some of the parents are victims of domestic violence and we know that traumatic brain injury can impact language literacy cognition. Further, they may have had their own language and literacy difficulties as children which could have continued into adulthood.” O’Neil-Pirozzi says she encourages parents to participate in the program with their child and may offer to help connect the family to external services through the shelter case managers.

Armend’s mother, we’ll call her Nora Bizi to protect her privacy, says she is grateful for O’Neil-Pirozzi and her volunteers’ work with Armend. An Albanian national, Bizi says she learned English from watching television. She says that watching O’Neil-Pirozzi with the children has helped her learn to be patient when working with Armend. “This is a beautiful teacher,” she says.

Pirozzi believes that for many families for whom English is a second language, the storytelling groups can be just as helpful for the parents as the children. “There are some parents who I think are actually learning English themselves from our storytelling groups,” she says while walking back to her lab.

For other parents the storytelling group represents a precious hour of supervised care. The shelter has rules about parents remaining with children at all times unless they are participating in a structured program. Sebastian’s mother, Catherine Green, says that she takes advantage of that time to catch up on some homework for her criminal justice classes at Bunker Hill Community College.

As for the student volunteers, they gain more than professional experience. O’Neil-Pirozzi says that many volunteers come to the program with misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness and the circumstances that might have led them to that situation. She says that she teaches her students that the leading causes of homelessness among single men and women is very different from the factors at play in family homelessness.

“I love seeing them reconfigure or reboot.” O’Neil-Pirozzi says. “That’s been an awesome experience for them and for me.”

Anti-Hunger Network Struggles to Meet Growing Need for Healthy Food

In Food Security, Poverty, Social Issues on April 6, 2012 at 4:24 pm

This article was first published by Spare Change News on April 6, 2012.

Nearly one in every 20 households in Massachusetts reported cutting back on the size and frequency of meals from 2008 to 2010, because they could not afford food, according to recent data from the USDA Economic Research Service.

This figure represents only half the picture of hunger in Massachusetts, counting only those that the USDA categorizes as “very low food security.” Just as many households reported having to sacrifice nutrition in order to avoid going hungry.

“These are families where folks are not exactly hungry, but they are relying on cereal or rice and beans for the
last week of the month,” says Sarah Cluggish, director of programs at Project Bread, a Boston-based organization that coordinates anti-hunger services and programs throughout the state.

An extensive network of hunger relief organizations throughout the state struggles to ensure that every family has not just food, but healthy food.

Click here to read more…


No Direction Home: When Coming Out Means Kicked Out

In Civil Rights, Poverty, Social Issues on March 21, 2012 at 9:05 am

This article first appeared in print in Spare Change News on Friday, March 9, 2012 and online at on the same day.

Diamond McMillion mugs for the camera at a Harvard Square cafe before heading to work in the kitchen at
Youth on Fire.

At 16 years old, Diamond McMillion was too young to check into a shelter. As a lesbian, she felt unwelcome at home and frequently slept in an elevator shaft with three friends.

“We would ring every buzzer in the building until somebody got tired of listening to it ringing and would let us in. We’d disconnect the elevator for the night and reconnect it before we left in the morning,” said McMillion.

Echoes of McMillion’s story can be heard across the country. Kids rejected by their family for their sexual orientation and turned out into the street are left to fend for themselves.

Sassafras Lowrey was kicked out of her home at 17 while she was in her senior year of high school in rural Oregon. Her mother pled guilty to assaulting her for coming out of the closet. At the time, she says that she felt isolated and alone. Ten years later, she published Kicked Out—a compilation of stories told by current and past lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) homeless youth. She believes this is a national epidemic.

“It’s happening in every community, every urban center, every suburban neighborhood, every small town,” said Lowrey.

A recent study from Children’s Hospital Boston published online by the American Journal of Public Health reports that 1 in 4 gay and lesbian and high school students are homeless, compared with just 3 percent of heterosexual teens.

In general, young people have few options if they are unable to stay at home. Other than going through a lengthy emancipation process in the courts, young people under the age of 18 are expected to be in the care of adult family members or the foster care system.

“At the age of 16 in Massachusetts, you can consent to sex, you can emancipate yourself, you can drop out of high school, but you can’t check into a shelter,” McMillion said. “The only thing you can do is latch onto an older person, who may or may not take advantage of you.”

For McMillion and many others in similar situations, her 18th birthday did not come with a place to belong.

Ayala Livny, director of Youth on Fire, a drop-in center in Cambridge for young people experiencing homelessness, stated that although anyone over 18 can stay in a shelter, young people are not safe in this environment and become easy targets. “Young people in general don’t really go into the shelters,” Livny. “They stay outside. They couch surf. They try to blend in and find creative ways of housing themselves. That’s even more true for our queer identified youth.”

Quianna Sarjeant, a member of Youth on Fire, addressed a gathering of advocates at the Massachusetts State House for the Leap into Action to End Homelessness, Legislative Action Day on February 29. She explained some of the reasons that general population shelters are inappropriate for young people. “When I was 18 staying at the shelters, I found myself witnessing things that an 18-year-old should not have to witness,” said Sarjeant. “I saw men masturbating and people being rushed away in ambulances after overdosing on drugs.”

Following Sarjeant’s speech, she, McMillion, Livny and others from Youth on Fire walked the halls of the State House making the case for the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Act currently being considered by the House Ways and Means Committee.

Donna LoConte, budget director and scheduler for Senator Anthony Petruccelli (D), listened intently as the group shared snippets of their lives on the streets.

“So how long can one stay at Youth on Fire?” LoConte asked.

Livny has been asked this question before. Quietly she explained that Youth on Fire is a drop-in space, open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. “When we close, folks go wherever it is they are going to go,” said Livny.

Slowly, the point that Livny, McMillion, and Sarjeant have come to make began to sink in. “I would have thought that folks at Youth on Fire could connect them to the services that they need,” LoConte said.

“Currently in Boston there is only one emergency shelter dedicated for young people,” said Livny. “It has twelve beds.”

LoConte’s face fell as she realized the implications of Livny’s words. She looked at the paperwork that Livny passed her, a fact sheet detailing several bills currently being weighed by the state Senate regarding housing and homelessness. She said Petruccelli was familiar with (and in support of) all of them she said, except the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Act, the one that Livny, Sarjeant, and McMillion came to highlight. She looked around the room at the faces of Youth on Fire, and said: “But now. Definitely. We’ll be talking about this one.”

The bill holds potential to improve services for all homeless young people, but there are still special challenges facing homeless LGBT youth.

Grace Sterling Stowell, executive director of Boston Alliance of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY) says that she has heard numerous reports of LGBT youth becoming targets for violence inside shelters. “We have heard stories of young men who become victims to adults in the shelter. Either they are found out to be gay and become targets of violence and harassment, and/or they become set up for sexual violence.” She says that she also heard significant reports of young people being victimized by staff.

McMillion says that she and her partner experienced discrimination from staff members at some area shelters. She says that she and her partner were forbidden from hugging, sitting too close together, or using the multi-stall bathroom at the same time. She recalls attempting to study with her partner for a course they both were taking at Bunker Hill Community College. The two could only afford one copy of the textbook and read together. A staff member at the shelter approached them and told them they had to take turns reading the book because they were sitting to close together. McMillion said that upon refusing, she and her partner were barred from the shelter for three days.

Stowell says that BAGLY and other organizations have been focusing on trying to connect shelter staff with cultural competency trainings, but has found it to be an uphill battle.

“Training’s not going to do anything. There needs to be more homosexual and transgender staff. There need to be workshops with clients on how to report mistreatment without fearing repercussions from other staff members,” said McMillion.

Today, McMillion has her own apartment in Quincy. Out of those four kids that slept in the elevator shafts of apartment buildings, she is the only one still alive. One of them, her girlfriend at the time, died in her arms of an asthma attack. McMillion said that she counts herself lucky. She says she feels compelled to become a leader and a voice of change. Right now, that looks like that might be through social work, but she’s open to possibilities. For now, she says, she can take a deep breath, let it out, and say, “I’m okay.”

Evacuation of Elderly Chinese Immigrants from Condemned Chinatown Building Underscores City’s Lack of Elder Homeless Services

In Civil Rights, Poverty, Social Issues on February 27, 2012 at 10:58 am

This article was first published in Spare Change News on February 24, 2012.

Photo courtesy of Noah Fournier

When the Boston Fire Department and Boston Inspectional Services condemned a building in Chinatown earlier this month, some 40 people were immediately displaced, sending the city officials scrambling to find emergency housing for the mostly elderly, non-English speaking residents.

Some officials called Adrienne Beloin, Outreach Director at HEARTH—a nonprofit organization aimed at eliminating homelessness among the elderly. She did not have any easy answers.

“The fact is there’s not an easy way for anyone to relocate instantly into housing,” Beloin said. “I’m afraid they’re going to be homeless—not unlike the elderly homeless that we serve in the shelters every day—until that magic room becomes available or a subsidy is approved for them.”

Although the residents of Harrison Avenue will likely receive some degree of priority because they suddenly became homeless through no fault of their own, their names have been added to already lengthy waiting lists, Beloin said. In her experience, advocating for individuals in similar situations, it can take up to a year to connect an individual with an affordable subsidized apartment.

For now, the City of Boston has made a concerted effort to find safe and adequate shelter for these newly displaced people. The Office of Emergency Management put many of them up in hotels for the first several nights. Since then, half of them have moved to area shelters and the other half are living at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.

Sheila Dillon, housing advisor to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said that the city has made efforts to connect these residents with elder services and made sure that the residents are registered with the Boston Housing Authority. Many have already secured a spot on the waiting list for subsidized housing, but that wait can be very long, especially if there is need to live in a specific neighborhood.

For both recent immigrants to the United States and those who have been here for a while, Chinatown holds a scent of familiarity and a chance of employment in a country where they do not speak the language. Executive Director Courtney Ho of Chinatown Main Street has provided translation for the Cantonese-speaking residents during closed-door meetings with city officials and area service organizations to try to figure out where to place them temporarily. She said that many of the residents told her that they work in the neighborhood until the early hours of the morning, after the MBTA has stopped running. Both temporary housing and their eventual homes must be in Chinatown. She added that many of them hope to return to the same building once the landlord addresses the safety issues.

A Larger Problem

There was a time in Boston when seniors experiencing homelessness had a place to go. Pine Street Inn set aside a separate space, as a dignified shelter for older men and women experiencing a housing crisis through a collaboration with Boston Medical Center’s Elders Living at Home Program. Budget cuts in 2008 resulted in the collapse of this program, leaving few options for seniors seeking emergency housing.

Director Eileen O’Brien, of Elders Living at Home, said that she also received a number of requests for assistance from both city and state agencies hoping that she could offer help for the residents from Chinatown. “All we were able to do was say, ‘Well, that’s something we could have helped with and we can’t anymore.’ We have developed a really successful model for care that no doubt would have served them greatly, but the fact is, we are unable to do it because we lack the resources to do it.”

While the Elders Living at Home program still provides vital support services to formerly homeless seniors, this represents only a fraction of the services it once was able to provide. This particular incident may have shed light on this hole in Boston’s safety net; however, O’Brien said this is not a new problem. The city has gone to great lengths to find the residents of 25 Harrison Ave. shelter where they can be together as couples and as a community. However, people end up homeless all the time as the result of a fire or some other crisis, and for many of them, the only place to go is a general population emergency shelter. Couples must separate and shelter residents often have to leave during the day.

O’Brien explained that emergency shelters tend to be crowded and chaotic. Many shelter residents suffer from severe addiction and substance abuse issues. “For older people in that mix, the likelihood of being very afraid, being victimized, or getting lost in the shuffle is very high. Those things really happen.” Many find that the safest course through the shelter is to stay on the fringe and attempt to blend into the woodwork. That same defense mechanism keeps them from accessing assistance.

“The ironic thing is people over 62 are eligible for benefits and housing by virtue of their age. The solution isn’t difficult. There just haven’t been consistent resources to see it through.”

Sidebar: A building waiting to be a disaster

When the Boston Fire Department responded to a fire alarm at 25 Harrison Avenue in Chinatown, on Feb. 8, firefighters were unable to locate the source of problem on the fire alarm control panel, requiring a total walkthrough of the building. They did not find a fire, but they found tremendous potential for one. Building owners Alexander and Julie Szeto of Southborough have since received numerous citations from the Fire Department and the Department of Inspectional Services and may face fines or criminal charges if concerns are not adequately addressed.

Steve MacDonald, spokesman for the Boston Fire Department, said that while sprinklers were present in the first two vacant floors, there were none in the three floors that functioned as living quarters. Certain structural supports appeared to be missing entirely and the some emergency exits required a foot and a half step up to access the door. The owners were unable to present any record of inspection of the fire alarm system.

MacDonald described the interior of the building. “The third through fifth floors each has 11 rooms for rent and that’s what they are, they are each just one room. You had a common bathroom on each floor, which consisted of a small sink, a shower stall, and a toilet. That was for all 11 rooms to use. Then you had, I wouldn’t even call it a kitchen, you had a sink and a four-burner cook top. No oven, no refrigerator.”

This style of housing is called a boarding house or Single Room Occupancy (SRO) and can be an affordable option for low-income individuals. According to Sheila Dillon, housing advisor to the mayor, the Szetos did not secure the appropriate license to run this kind of residence. The Szetos could not be reached for comment.

Caption: Boston Inspectional Services shuttered the entrances to 15 and 25 Harrison Avenue in Chinatown on Feb. 8, rendering some 40 residents homeless. The residents, mostly elderly Chinese immigrants, have been relocated to area emergency shelters.

New Initiative Targets Homelessness Among Veterans

In Poverty, Social Issues on January 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm

This article was first published by Spare Change News on January 27, 2012 and online at on January 29, 2012.


At 60 years old, Art Griffin is about to graduate from UMass Boston with a bachelor’s degree in social psychology. His eyes brighten when he talks about his post-graduation plans. “I want to work with veterans,” he says. The slight tremor in his hands briefly calms as he tilts his chin with a hint of pride. “That’s like a dream to me.”

For Griffin, veteran’s services represent more than a career path. New England Center for Homeless Veterans (NECHV) in particular has been his lifeline, his connection to counseling, housing, and educational support.

Tremendous progress has been made in the statewide struggle to end homelessness among veterans. Since January 2011, the number of homeless veterans has dropped by 20 percent. Still, over 1,200 veterans have no permanent home to call their own. Every night, NECHV alone houses between 300 and 350 veterans in temporary and emergency housing.

The Patrick/Murray administration announced recently a new federally funded initiative to fund sufficient additional services to connect 50 more veterans with permanent housing, psychiatric care, and peer counseling.

The initiative comes as welcome news to Andrew McCawley, NECHV president and CEO. While the reduction in the numbers of homeless veterans in Massachusetts is encouraging, McCawley says that demand will continue to increase as more members of the armed services return from deployment, making additional investments in veteran’s services crucial.

“I think [the pilot program] will go well and make a significant difference in 50 people’s lives as well as bring a significant social savings,” McCawley says. He pointed out that NECHV has been providing these kinds of services for 20 years and has already seen ample evidence that they work.

Griffin represents just one of NECHV’s success stories.

Following a 24-year career in the army—including an 18-month tour in Vietnam, service as a career electrical engineer, and a stint as a drill sergeant—and a run-in with the law, with a subsequent stint in the Vermont prison system, Griffin meandered through the country, spending time in Tennessee, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, and Florida on a national roll through sidewalks, shelters, and soup kitchens.

When Griffin checked into NECHV, he was sure he was just passing through. He chuckles to himself and shakes his head remembering. “The whole first year I was here, I kept telling my case manager I didn’t need any help. I’m not staying.”

He ended up staying three years, before he was placed in permanent housing. And he still can’t stay away. He traded in his green resident’s badge for the red visitor’s badge—something of a rite of passage in the NECHV world—but he keeps coming back.

Griffin says he sees many former residents at various support groups, like one he attends for veterans suffering from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. “That’s a big help when you’re out on your own and struggling to stay away from drugs and alcohol,” he says.

“It’s not healthy to sit home and vegetate, so I come down here and volunteer,” he says. He might jump in and serve lunch if the kitchen is short on volunteers, take reporters on a tour of the facility, or help sort donations. “I’ve just always been that way,” he says with a small shrug.

He said he returns to meetings as much for his friends as for himself. “I don’t want others to show up and not see anyone they know. Then they might think they’re on their own,” he said.

For many veterans returning to the states from deployment, home can be a lonely place. Career military professionals spent their lives living in close quarters with comrades following a regimented structure. Veterans’ organizations like NECVH can provide a familiar sense of community and order.

An antique dog tag press is on display outside one “deck,” or sleeping quarters. Temporary residents are issued bunks and lockers. Every morning resident volunteer “lieutenants” patrol the decks, and medics are available for “sick call.”

As Griffin steps off the elevator onto “Deck 2,” he cups his hand to his mouth and calls out, “Female on deck.” The warning bounces down the linoleum tile, is repeated by a toothy veteran lounging in a swivel chair, and returns in muffled echoes from veterans in the bunks. It is an old system of communication, reminiscent of marching soldiers passing orders down the line. Old habits die hard.

Griffin shrugs and smiles. “It makes them feel like home.”

Dramatic Decline in Veteran Homelessness Inspires Mass. Program

In Poverty, Social Issues on January 17, 2012 at 9:26 am

This article was first published by New England Post on January 10, 2012.

Courtesy of Noah Fournier

“You’re welcome here, but ultimately we really want you to leave.”

That is the message Andrew McCawley hopes to convey to the more than 300 veterans living in transitional and emergency housing at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans (NECHV) each night. “Our emphasis is on helping folks that struggle with chronic homelessness to progress toward independent living.”

McCawley, who heads the center, served in the Navy for 27 years as an officer and aviator. He has since traded in his naval uniform for a suit and wears miniature dog tags pinned to his lapel—the symbol of the NECHV. His business card does not solely advertise the services of a shelter. Instead it reads, “Providing homeless veterans with the tools for independent living.”

The organization’s efforts (combined with those of many other area organizations) appear to be working.

New figures from the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services indicate a 21 percent reduction since January, 2011, in the number of homeless veterans living in Massachusetts, almost double the rate of decline seen nationally over that period.

“We are ending homelessness among veterans,” said Gov. Deval Patrick (D) announcing the dramatic decline at a press conference last week. “Today, thanks to the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Murray, our Department of Veterans’ Services and our federal partners, we are seeing significant progress. But we must keep going to ensure that the men and women who have served our country in uniform have access to all the benefits their service has earned them.”

Appearing with Patrick, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray (D) applauded existing services for homeless veterans and announced a federally funded pilot program to transition an additional 50 veterans into permanent housing and connect them with mental health and peer counseling services.

The $323,000 pilot program will complement programs already offered through an existing network of veterans’ services. The Department of Veterans’ Services will collaborate with NECHV, Pine Street Inn, St. Francis House, and HopeFound in Boston, the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea, the Lynn Housing Authority, and Veterans’ Northeast Outreach Center in Haverhill.

Every veteran comes to these programs with a unique set of circumstances. Many suffer from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder; others struggle with substance abuse, and other mental health-related issues. Some need job training and other need life skills to learn to live outside the structure of the military.

Courtesy of Noah Fournier

“No two cases are the same,” McCawley says. “There’s no one end state or single path to an end state.” The new grant will supplement more than a dozen others that fund local veterans’ organizations.

About two thirds of NECHV’s funding comes from public sources and the rest from private donations. Donations of clothing and essentials stock the center store where residents can take what they need from racks of suits for job interviews, packages of socks, long underwear, and rows of toiletries. Volunteers come in groups and as individuals to staff the lunch lines each day. And the center’s 100-year-old building in the heart of Boston recently got a facelift thanks to a crew of volunteers from Home Depot’s Aprons in Action program.

In addition to providing emergency and temporary shelter for clients, the center houses 60 veterans in permanent apartments. Residents receive meals, a mailing address, access to a laundry room, and supplies from the center store.

Any veteran, regardless of housing status, can participate in support groups, get a hot lunch, and receive job training. Staffers and volunteers assist NECHV clients in online job hunting, applying for subsidized housing, and researching educational opportunities.