On an unusually “lion-like” evening for one of March’s final days, the Homeless Speaker’s Bureau visited the Yawkey Center’s Murray Room to offer a voice for the otherwise voiceless Boston underclass. Peter and Tia, two formerly-homeless-turned-advocates, addressed a crowd of Boston College students and faculty about their experiences with homelessness and their paths out of it.
Peter, who just celebrated his 55th birthday last week, had been living at Father Bill’s shelter in Quincy for seven years before he finally moved into more permanent housing. “Every day I woke up at 5 a.m. to start picking up cans,” he said about his daily life without a house or a job. “I’d push a shopping cart around until three in the afternoon. Then I’d return to Father Bill’s and get in line.” Only during snowstorms would Peter take days off from his routine.
Tia, a mother of three and an older sister to five younger siblings, lost her parents in late adolescence. Forced out of her own apartment and into a shelter, she looked to the state for aid. “I emailed the regional director in the governor’s office, and eventually she got back to me,” Tia said about her attempts to find a solution to a seemingly impossible situation. “I became very good at sending emails.”
At first finding solace in a state-sponsored hotel room in Danvers, Tia was able to move into a congregate housing facility, which offers a bed and a bureau for each resident. “It was a humbling experience,” Tia said about going from an otherwise stable living situation to a facility. “As a punishment [the people at the facility] would shut off your heat-even in the middle of winter. You don’t even set your own bed time.” This living style began to take a toll.
For Peter, the process to home-ness was a little more complicated. After seven years of picking up cans, he was able to get in touch with a homeless housing advocate. After numerous phone calls and meetings with his advocate, Peter was able to fill out the necessary applications and forms to get disability, social security, and counseling. “The counseling was very important to me,” Peter said. “Constantly being denied jobs because of my address [at Father Bill’s] affected me a lot. I was under a lot of different types of stress.”
Neither Tia nor Peter was on drugs or abusing alcohol during these periods of their lives. “My view on homelessness changed drastically,” said Tia. “Growing up, I was always told to stay away from homeless people, that they were unclean and had done it to themselves. Now I’m an advocate for them.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there were 19,029 total homeless persons living in Massachusetts in 2013, 12,335 (about 65 percent) of whom are considered “persons in households with at least one adult and one child.” Of these 12,335 people, only 1,696 (about 13 percent) have what HUD calls transitional housing, which includes arrangements like Peter’s apartment and Tia’s congregate housing.
There are programs working toward increasing that transitional housing statistic. Home & Healthy For Good is working to enact its “housing first initiative.” It believes that if a client’s housing situation is resolved, time will open up to address some of the deeper issues. According to the organization, each person in transitional housing saves the Commonwealth roughly $9,000 per person per year as opposed to his or her chronic use of emergency housing services like Father Bill’s in Quincy.
Peter and Tia worked hard to overcome difficult and untimely situations. For Peter, unemployment and disability left him without a stable living environment. For Tia, her parents’ unfortunate death and the financial burden of her children and siblings caused her to be unable to pay rent. Neither of these people battled drug or alcohol addiction, only unfortunate circumstances.