State Gives Homeless a Gift

The State House News Service recently released a brief news blurb that gave homeless people the greatest gift of all this Christmas season: hope.

Just a few months ago, the Department of Housing and Community Development tightened the regulations of shelter providers, such that eligibility was restricted to only those made homeless through domestic violence, natural disaster, or no fault eviction, or if the family was doubled up with another family but facing health and safety risks. This alarmed many homeless people for one reason: being homeless was no longer something that, in and of itself, deemed someone eligible for a homeless shelter. In the most unforgiving sense, the state would only offer emergency assistance to homeless people that were so through no fault of their own, abandoning any hope of a second chance for most homeless people that made a mistake along the way.

But on Oct. 22nd and 25th, the state permitted two hearings – in Springfield and Boston respectively – to allow the public to voice their concerns regarding the change in shelter eligibility (the rule, while in effect, was temporary pending these hearings). Hundreds of people swarmed these hearings to voice their concerns, and both ran into overtime. The one at the State House downtown, for example, was originally going to go from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., but I left at 1:30 and they were nowhere near getting through everyone that wanted to testify.
Among those that showed up were numerous homeless people in Boston. These people included the now-legendary Ginna, who otherwise would have been accepted into a homeless shelter before these rules but was denied this fall – and was raped in front of her child by a man who had promised to take her in for the night.

I called the blurb from SHNS a gift of hope because Ginna’s compelling story, combined with the testimonies of hundreds more, moved DHCD to revise the regulations.

Now families whose homes were foreclosed are eligible for emergency shelter, and many families who have been “couch surfing” for several months are also eligible. To clarify, multiple testimonies told a similar story about how families moved from friend to friend in subsidized housing, repeatedly back on the streets because these friends each feared that someone new living with them would endanger their own housing. Matthew Sheaff, spokesperson for DHCD, responded to this circumstance directly in the SHNS, stating that anyone who can document that a landlord would take action to terminate a tenant’s lease could ask for a direct referral from the Department of Children and Families.

Additionally, some restrictions from before have a little more flexibility. More leeway will go towards families in homes that are in poor condition, people living in overcrowded homes with more than one family, or people who are evicted for no explicitly stated reason.

Not all of the details regarding the revisions have been released (the full revision takes effect Dec. 7, which will be after SCN’s layout for the Dec. 14 issue). The way it looks, there will still be a few homeless brethren that will fall through the cracks when they don’t qualify for assistance. Among other criticisms, the Massachusetts Policy and Organizing Leadership Academy has already called the revisions “a fine campaign but no cigar” and entailed their views of the next steps, like providing further eligibility options for those with a child under six months or a family with medical circumstances. It’s very much a work in progress, to put it lightly.

But the big victory of the day, in my opinion, is that the homeless of Boston worked together, fought for a common cause alongside non-homeless civilians, and got results. This is a true story about the little guy standing up for what is right, one that sets precedence and is an inspiration for all sorts of future battles for social justice. This hasn’t been the first time the homeless of our humble state were able to band together and make a difference – and with the positive thinking that got this much done, it certainly won’t be the last.

But in this victory, we must also practice a little modesty and realism as well. It’s not that the powers that be are corrupt or evil, as on TV. It’s not that the shelter providers wanted to turn away thousands of homeless people simply to serve only priority clients and ultimately boost their own numbers. It’s not that the state simply doesn’t care about the homeless.

While a little corruption and willful ignorance will almost always be a threat with great power at hand, we cannot consider the service providers who originally changed the rules to be the enemy – especially considering they were the same people that officially revised the rules in response to our pleas. They, in the grand scheme of things, are no different than we are; they simply want to make a difference and improve conditions, and are taking action based solely on what they have already known, seen or experienced. Some representatives of shelter providers did come to defend the new rules at the State House meetings, but none of them were ill-intended. Rather, they were fighting for what they thought was right, as well: for example, a system that works, and the theory that tightening the ropes to help a few select people fully would be a wiser use of state money than to help many more people in a less effective way.

So while this event was a victory over an injustice, we must not look at it as a victory over someone unjust – without evidence, that would be a stretch of the facts. Rather, I hope two consequences come from this event in the long term: an ongoing peaceful relationship between DHCD and the clients they serve – in which both have a voice to express the effectiveness of their programs – and renewed faith in the power of the homeless. Like any other group, we can make a difference by working together. This new proof of our own empowerment should be great momentum for all the homeless who have lost hope along the way, feeling like they’ll never be or make something significant. You do have power. We all do.

And, from the bottom of my heart, thank you to all Spare Change readers, homeless or otherwise, who spoke at one of the state hearings. The homeless of Boston who benefit will no doubt be grateful. And, at the end of the day, only through hearing as many voices and experiences as possible can we truly know which state actions are right and which are wrong.

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