Poverty in Suburbia

Wellesley event to highlight need in wealthy communities

Paula Mathieu
Spare Change News

Very little about the upcoming MetroWest Homelessness Forum is what one might expect.

Unexpected Detail #1: It’s taking place in the tiny suburb of Wellesley, the fifth wealthiest town in Massachusetts.

“What are you talking about, homelessness in Wellesley?” quips Evelyn Reading, one of the event’s organizers. “Some people think we don’t have poverty or homelessness here, but of course we do … the food pantry in Wellesley is in great need. Senior citizens are having a hard time.”

“So many people are not aware of this issue in their own backyard,” said Beth Cooper, director of the Family Promise Network, one of the organizations involved in the forum.

Changing perceptions about where and who homeless people are is one of the goals of the event.

“My take is that homelessness is an important issue for any person of conscience, no matter where you live. It’s an issue for everyone,” said the Rev. Joan Murray, an event organizer and founder of Chaplains on the Way.

The forum, which takes place Sunday, March 18 from 2:30 to 5:00 p.m., is open to anyone in the MetroWest Boston area or beyond with an interest in learning about or helping address the problem of homelessness in the Bay State.

Unexpected Detail #2: This event will bring together an unlikely coalition of state government officials, homeless service organizations, and people from at least eight different houses of worship to discuss ways to positively address the increase of homelessness in Massachusetts. Such collaboration across class, religious, and municipal boundaries is a welcome aberration during a national political moment characterized by cries of “class warfare” and arguments about religious freedom and government intervention.

Unexpected Detail #3: Area state legislators expressed overwhelming support for the idea, and many will attend the event. Civil rights activist and State Representative Byron Rushing will provide the keynote address for the event, and a legislative panel on homeless issues and state legislation will include Rep. Tom Conroy, Rep. Carolyn Dykema, Rep. Kay Khan, Rep. David Linsky, Rep. Tom Sannicandro, and Rep. Chris Walsh.

“One of the key things we want people to learn about is legislative advocacy,” said George Ebbs, co-chair of the planning committee. “We could have gotten more representatives, but some just couldn’t be here that day. But there is a lot of support from state officials, and they want to hear from their constituents.”

It seems fitting that this event to discuss homelessness defies simple expectations, because homelessness today does not only conform to long-held stereotypes about who is homeless or why.

Today, homeless people are increasingly the very young and the very old. From 2000 to 2009, the number of children living in poverty in the U.S. increased by 33 percent, to more than 15 million, and by some estimates more than 1.6 million children are homeless. According to Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk, the president of the National Center on Family Homelessness, more than half the country’s homeless children are under 6.

In a recent survey conducted by Clark University of teens in Worcester, a majority of those who identified as homeless were women, and more than half of the homeless teens were pregnant or parenting.

At the other end of the life spectrum, the number of older people in Massachusetts facing homelessness has increased in the past decade, according to a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Increased homelessness among the elderly often is the result of poverty and the declining availability of affordable housing. Throughout the nation, there are at least nine seniors waiting for every occupied unit of affordable elderly housing, according to Hearth, a Boston-based organization dedicated to the elimination of poverty among the elderly.

While recent news about homelessness can be distressing, the event’s sponsors want to bring people together, not only to focus on the problem but on solutions.

“I’m hoping we’re able to showcase to people that there are lots of ways to help out. Many organizations will be there to talk about how to get involved,” said Ebbs.

“My great desire is to have this forum attended by as many people as possible so they can learn,” said Murray. “We’re hoping the forum will be a way for people to learn about homelessness and learn ways they can get connected — through advocacy, direct service, and preventive services.

We’re hoping to reverse this trend of homelessness and help people stay in their places,” said Cooper.

Only half jokingly, Ebbs added, “This is going to be the biggest thing to hit the town in a while.”

PAULA MATHIEU is a volunteer at Spare Change News, who also teaches English at Boston College.

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