Noelle Swan

Posts Tagged ‘homeless’

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.

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.