Cookie Day at the State House

Repeated rallying cries of “Housing!” echoed off the marble wall of the State House on February 13th. Concerned citizens gathered in the State House’s Nurses’ Hall to demand 20 million dollars in additional funding for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) in the 2014 fiscal year budget. The event, known as “Cookie Day” for the snacks provided, was sponsored by State Representative Kevin Honan, Chair of the House Committee on Housing. It was arranged by Homes for Families, a Boston advocacy agency whose goal is ending family homelessness in the state of Massachusetts. The purpose of Cookie Day was to bring advocacy and awareness of the critical MRVP program, which is receiving a fraction of its former $120 million funding at a time when its services are needed more than ever.

Asked about the need to fund MRVP at the $60 million level, as opposed to its current $40 million of funding, Homes for Families Executive Director Libby Hayes explained, “The gap between wages and rents continues to increase. It’s harder and harder for families to afford rent, and there is less and less help for them.” She described MRVP as a flexible housing subsidy which can be used in a variety of ways to get people immediate housing help, with the ultimate goal of moving recipients into permanent housing. Hayes spoke of the importance of highlighting “the need for housing and the struggles that families face, both in shelters and motels, as they are working toward more economic and housing stability.” She added that the Cookie Day event was an important way to let legislators know that people were present who cared about housing and that “it’s a big issue in the Commonwealth…[legislators] have a choice to make of whether or not they want to start to address the issue of affordable housing.”

Diane Sullivan, Policy Director of Homes for Families, added “We’re here to put us on a better track to ending homelessness in the State of Massachusetts.” Speaking to those in attendance, who filled Nurses’ Hall and the corridor behind it, Sullivan held up a bottle of shower gel, angrily lamenting how legislative discussion on the funding of housing programs had devolved into a distracting debate about whether recipients of housing aid should be able to buy cosmetics with the money they receive. This discussion over cosmetics was a result of a bill filed by State Representative Shaunna O’Connell, which would have made it illegal for recipients of cash assistance to use that money for any cosmetics beyond a bar of soap. She bemoaned that debate about “Lip balm for their children’s chapped lips, lotion for their dry skin – we’re defending a poor mother’s right to buy shampoo.” Sullivan continued, “We are here for the families, the poor and the homeless, and we are going to take the conversation back. We do not choose to be homeless, we do not choose to be poor – but we do choose to exercise our right to be heard, especially in this house…We are changing the conversation – we take it back.” Her comments were followed by loud cries of “Housing!” which reverberated off the walls.

Much of Homes for Families’ work is done by people who have been homeless themselves, and two women spoke to the crowd about their personal experiences with homelessness. Gabrielle Vacheresse spoke of her 373 days of living in a shelter, the number burned into her memory. In her own apartment for five years now and working as a Chair of Homes for Families as well as a Homestart Coordinator, she well knows the hardships faced by the homeless in this state, and the difference a program like MRVP can make. Speaking of being homeless, she warned of the need for more funding, noting that “It didn’t break me, but never forget that it could break you.”

Matilde Liz Gonzales, a homeless mother of two children, then spoke about her current experience living in a motel with her children while holding down a full-time job. She described the hardship of waking up at 5 am to prepare herself and her girls for a long commute, and the need to sometimes heat bathing water in a microwave, or to skip bathing and meals altogether. She commented, “My kids and I are afraid of living in and going to that motel every night. Imagine having a new set of neighbors every single night. Would you feel safe with your children?” Gonzales spoke of her fears of losing her job, and noted that even working full time did not mean that she could afford rent. She lamented, “I feel like I keep running into closed doors. I have exhausted all my resources and I still live in a motel room with my daughters, working for our chance to get out.” Gonzales concluded her remarks with a reminder for those present to remember that families like hers exist. She concluded, “I wanted to be here today to put a face to the story of family homelessness and ask that you all do what you can to help. I hope my story will be able to help other families going through the same situation…we simply need housing we can afford, and rental vouchers can do that.”

State Representative Kevin Honan addressed the assembled visitors, reminding them that “[MRVP]is important to providing safe and affordable housing throughout the Commonwealth, and increased funding is vital to preserving the vouchers currently in circulation and bringing additional vouchers online. I applaud the efforts of Libby Hayes and Diane Sullivan…for organizing this great event and for their extraordinary efforts advocating on behalf of people in need.”  Honan continued, “The meetings you will have today with your state reps and senators are an important part of making sure this program continues to see the success it has so far.  Many of my colleagues in this building have supported MRVP funding in the past and it is your job to encourage them to do so again this year.”

State Senator Jamie Eldridge, Senate Chair of Housing, also reminded the attendees from the podium that “There are a lot of legislators in your corner, but we need a lot more support.” Senator Eldridge was then presented with a giant house-shaped cookie from Diane Sullivan as a symbol of his advocacy on behalf of homeless families and leadership in support for low-income housing. The event then wrapped up with a question-and-answer session.

According to Housing for Families, if additional funding to MRVP is restored, it would maintain the current 6,000+ vouchers in circulation, while providing 1,400 additional units of affordable housing for low-income households struggling with housing instability. Speaking of the Cookie Day event, Diane Sullivan said, “The attendance and energy was great – it’s now about pushing the right conversation forward – a conversation about solutions, with no more distractions.”

—Melanie T. Mendez

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