In Cambridge, the Homeless Help the Homeless: A Surprisingly Effective Solution

Alison Clark

You might think, after all these years of trying to end homelessness, that every possible solution has been tried. Shelters, soup kitchens, and social workers are prolific around the country and yet the homeless population continues to grow.

A Cambridge non-profit realized that addressing the symptoms of homelessness will not prevent it, and what we need to do is start addressing the root causes.

Solutions at Work, http://www.solutionsatwork.org/, is a small operation, run out of a tiny office in the basement of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church on Massachusetts Avenue in Harvard Square. Since 1989, the group has been providing support services to people who are transitioning out of homelessness, with the aim of returning people to self-sufficiency.

Since the program’s beginning, they have helped to move more than 75,000 people permanently out of homelessness, making it a very effective agent of change for Boston’s homeless community.

Solutions at Work is currently made up of four separate programs: Solutionswear, Get Connected!, Children’s Clothing Exchange, and Moving Up. Each program provides a service that might be needed at a different stage of returning to the mainstream.

 Moving Up is a discount moving service for people who have just received housing.

 Solutionswear provides second-hand or donated business clothing for use at job interviews or training programs.

 Get Connected! refurbishes donated computers and then gives them to families who are newly housed.

 Children’s Clothing Exchange lets people drop off outgrown children’s clothes in exchange for clothes that fit.

I interviewed T. J. Williams, who works as the program coordinator for Moving Up, to see how the operation works.

TJW: I work in the office and on the truck. Moving Up is just one part of Solutions at Work. We have different facets and our main goal is to help end homelessness. Moving Up provides low-cost moving services to people coming out of homelessness or going into it, who need to have their items moved. We try to provide as low a cost as we can.

SC: So, it’s a non-profit organization. Do you have a fundraising division?

TJW: Our director does all the fundraising for the program and tries to get extra money for the different programs, to help us attract more people. We have the Get Connected program, which tries to provide people who are just getting a home with a computer. A computer is a necessity these days, and it helps people who are looking for jobs or resources. We’ll refurbish old computers and then give them out to people for around $35.

We also have the Clothing Exchange and Solutionswear. The clothing exchange is where single, young, or just any parent can bring in clothes that don’t fit their kids anymore and get clothes that do. That’s located in Cambridge. Solutionswear –if you’re homeless, trying to get a job, it provides you with clothing that can be presentable and will have you looking better at a job interview. It’s a really good program.

We used to have a furniture bank. We lost funding, sadly. We still give out furniture that people donate to us, and keep it in a storage unit, have people come look at it, and take what they need. Hopefully we’ll get that [the furniture bank] back, we’re looking to get that back. We used to have the Wheels Program, where people donate cars and we distribute them. We lost funding for that, but we’re trying to keep these programs together.

SC: Is there any part of the organization that deals with the social and psychological aspects of mainstreaming homeless people?

TJW: Well, one thing we do is to have people who have just gotten back into society work at the program with the movers. It’s all volunteer, so we have jobs available for people who are homeless. Sometimes, if they work here for a while, they get to work on helping other people in the same situation. It’s good for them. They get to communicate with people on a personal level and see what their situation is. So, it sets them up to move on to better employment. They get a reference from us, like, “this person’s worked here for five months, and these are the different things that they’ve done.” Everybody needs job experience if you’re looking for a job.

SC: It’s a Catch-22. It’s great you can get people out of that situation. How did you get started here?

TJW: I got started four years ago, in October. I started as a mover. Barbara Lanum, who used to head the program, hired me. She was a great boss. I was a mover on the truck. I was homeless at the time.

SC: Wow, so you’ve got a personal story that’s connected with this?

TJW: I was homeless for, I believe, six months, a couple years ago.

SC: Glad you made it out.

TJW: Thanks. One of the reasons, in a great part, was Solutions. You know, I was homeless. I had a part-time job at the time, but it wasn’t enough. Solutions gave me something of an employment. I got really into it, because I like the job and I like working with people.

SC: It’s got to be satisfying to see a change in your clients. Before and after.

TJW: The field manager, Rich Hines, who works on the truck, he said it himself, “In this world, you’re going to work for the rich, or you’re going to work for the poor. And there’s work to help somebody in a situation.” He’s like, “I’d rather work with people that would need it more.” So he likes the job. Because there’s a lot of moving companies. You could be a mover in any company and probably get better pay. But it wouldn’t be as rewarding as the work that we do for the organization and the people we help. You feel good about the things you do at the end of the day, and it’s what keeps people here. It may not be the pay. And we really want people to come in and move on to better employment. But Rich Hines stays, as the field commander, to lay down a little bit of knowledge, work ethic, and skills for the people that keep coming. He trained me as a mover, two years ago.

SC: So, what would a typical moving scenario be like? When I think about someone who’s homeless, I automatically assume that they might not have that much stuff that would need moving.

TJW: Well, in a typical situation, we want to make sure that we’re helping the people that need it. There are some people who are also low-income, or don’t have that much money, but they might not need the exact help from us. They might be able to afford a company that was better suited to them. So, we work with a lot of agencies that filter out people.

When they come to us from an agency, we know that they’re people that we work with constantly and that we can trust that the person they have us helping is somebody that’s in need of our services. So, I’d probably get a referral form from an agency, like, somebody just sent a referral in now. They give me that list of items that they have, and they let me know if they’re coming from a furniture bank.

We still work with lots of different furniture banks, in Acton, Lynn, Weymouth, Reading. They service different parts of Massachusetts, which is why they’re all spread out. They give furniture out at no cost. What we do is provide the moving, at as low a cost as we can.

SC: So if somebody started without the basic stuff you would need to furnish an apartment, what you do as movers is give it to them?

TJW: You know, something that people don’t think about very often is that moving is such a resource that you wouldn’t think of having to spend this money. You might be like, oh finally I got a place to live, I’m so happy –

SC: — and now I have to pay $300 that I don’t have –

TJW: Yeah. I have to pay God knows how much to have all this moved. And they might be taking advantage of you, charging you small fees that you wouldn’t understand. So what we do is charge as little as we possibly can, just so we can keep helping people.

SC: So, furniture banks are just places that donate furniture for free. Even if Moving Up doesn’t have funding to do it yourself, you can still have a liaison with the people who do have the funding.

TJW: Yeah.

SC: You’ve been working here for four years. Have you noticed a change since 2008? Are there more people who need your help, or have you helped a different kind of people? For example, have you helped anyone who was totally fine several months ago, and now all of the sudden they’re living out of their car?

TJW: Yeah, lots of changes. As far as Moving Up goes, we had a very big staff when I first started. It was hard to keep track of guys. What we do is give people trust when they come in the door. Like, if you just got out of jail and need a job, you can move have references. People don’t always trust you right away, but we do. We give you that trust, and let you know that we all have that. So if you come in and work for us, you collect money from clients. We need to be able to know that you’re going to take care of everything. People sometimes take that trust and – you know. It happens. People will take the money. But now, it’s happening a lot less.

SC: People are stealing less because they’re more interested in having a stable job?

TJW: Yeah. Some people will come back and apologize for the way they acted. There were substance abuse problems, or other small things that happened at the time, in the state of mind they were in.

SC: Interesting. So people who previously could have expected to be able to pick up some kind of job are now realizing that that’s not as reliable, and so they come back to you because they’re desperate for work experience.

TJW: Yeah. Another change is that there’s a lot less funding. There is less and less funding coming in for this type of program. I don’t believe that people who are looking to donate money – like federal funds – think of moving, when they think of resources people need. We’ve had to raise our prices a lot since 2008. We used to charge $60 an hour, which is very low, for two guys with the truck. That was when we first started, and we didn’t have to charge any overhead fees. Now, we charge $80 an hour for two men. Most of the time, we’ll send an extra guy, and try to cut corners as much as we possibly can to keep costs low for our clients. But we’re coming into a position where we need to make sure that we can sustain ourselves, to keep helping people.

Funding has been something that has become harder and harder to get as time goes by. We’ve expanded the range of people that we accommodate. We’re trying to prevent homelessness. For example, maybe some old person has retired, and they’ve found that they have no money. They’ve lived in Brookline all their life, able to afford everything they needed, but now they’re at a point where they’ve lost everything. They’re not in the same category as [most of our clients], but they’re low-income. They’re in a situation that they never expected to be in; they can’t afford to move or to help themselves. And they maybe don’t have any family there to assist them. They’re alone, and may have more items than you expect. They’re downsizing. They need help.

SC: Do you ever help people sell their things?

TJW: We usually don’t help people do that. We donate. If somebody’s trying to downsize and they want to make sure that there’s something they have that gets to somebody that needs it, we would pick it up and drop it off at a furniture bank for no charge. [People having to downsize] is something that’s happening a lot more.

SC: Have you noticed that? An uptick in people who are at retirement age who are just —

TJW: Yeah, there’s nothing there for them. They have to downsize and move into a place where they’re not going to be paying the rent, and they won’t have any money coming in, to themselves. One other thing I’ve noticed, with the lack of funding, is that it’s been harder to help as many people as we’d like to. We’re hoping that more funding is going to come in. My favorite types of funds are Campbell Hall. They donate a certain amount to us every year allowing us to help a specific [group]. They want us to help seniors. We can use that fund to discount anyone’s move, 58 or older, by 50%, or fund the whole thing for four hours. We do whatever we can to help these people, so they don’t have to spend a dime and can keep the money for living expenses. We work with a lot of domestic violence shelters, which is also homeless people, and other homeless prevention programs. They’re coming out of a situation where they were in fear of people. We have to go in and make sure the guys are calm and respectful to them while moving their things, because they don’t want to move feel like they’re being forced. You have to present a certain aura and act a way so that they can be comfortable.

SC: Right. You have to go in with the mentality of a social worker.

TJW: And that’s giving skills to the people that work here, to be able to go into certain situations, talk to people when they’re in an emotional state. It’s not just moving. There are lots of things that go with it for the guys on the truck working with people. You just never know.

SC: Are the different branches of Solutions at Work on the website?

Yeah. We’re getting our website redone, but the website now is, http://www.solutionsatwork.org/, which says the different types of organizations we have. Hopefully, our website will be finished in the next month. It’s going to show all the different people. I like Spare Change, when I read it, you have the vendors.

SC: Right, pictures of the people who are selling the paper.

TJW: Yeah, and that’s important. It shows impact. Our donors are thinking, “I’d like to see the people that get the help.” After the move, if our clients are happy and comfortable enough to take a picture with the guys and truck after their move, I’d like for them to take a picture, and we could post it on the website. They could give a brief autobiography saying how we helped them, allowing more people to be helped. When donors see the people, it helps so much.

ALISON CLARK is a reporter and editor for Spare Change News.

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