Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Soaring Rents And Stagnant Incomes Leave Record Number Of Mass. Families Homeless

Soaring Rents And Stagnant Incomes Leave Record Number Of Mass. Families Homeless

Tuesday, December 17

By Bruce Gellerman December 16, 2013

Lynnicia, 22, and her 15-month-old son, Myshon, were forced to seek emergency shelter after their federal rent subsidy expired and their landlord raised the rent to market rate. With no shelter space available, they were placed in a Brighton motel. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — Hundreds of volunteers will fan out across Boston Monday night to conduct the city’s 34th annual homeless census. They’ll be counting how many people are living on the streets and in shelters.

By now, homelessness was supposed to be a thing of the past in Boston and all of Massachusetts. In 2008, a state legislative commission released a five-year plan to eliminate it. But today, homelessness is up and the number of families seeking shelter is at an all-time high.

‘Obligated To Place’

When it comes to dealing with homeless families, Massachusetts is unique. Thirty years ago, the commonwealth become the first “right to shelter” state, guaranteeing every eligible family a roof over their heads.

“We have the most extensive emergency shelter system in the country and we’re the only state where [when] someone qualifies for emergency shelter, we are obligated to place,” explained Aaron Gornstein, Massachusetts’ undersecretary of Housing and Community Development.

The housing office has contracts with permanent shelters around the state to provide emergency assistance for 2,000 families. In normal times, the safety net works, serving homeless parents and their children under 21. But, Gornstein says, these are not normal times.

“We’ve been coming out the Great Recession but there are still many families facing economic hardship,” Gornstein said. “We have a very tight rental market compared to a year ago, so we do see more evictions for non-payment of rent because rents are going up.”

Way up: the average monthly rent in Massachusetts is the sixth highest in the nation. And as rents have soared around the state, incomes have stagnated. Massachusetts has one of the widest wage gaps between rich and poor in the country.

“People don’t choose homelessness, people do not choose poverty,” said Diane Sullivan, policy director at the Boston-based advocacy organization Homes for Families. ”You could be working two jobs. That’s what a lot of people say, ‘Oh, well, if you’re working and you’re still poor, get another job.’ You could never sleep, you could never be there to care for your children and you still wouldn’t be able to pay the rent. That’s the reality.”

Sequestration Hits An Already-Struggling System

“But what’s made it worse,” Gornstein explained, “is the federal budget cuts that occurred as part of sequestration earlier this year.” Gornstein says since spring, the state has lost $20 million in federal funding for subsidized housing. The so-called Section 8 program has been frozen at 20,000 vouchers in Massachusetts. There are 95,000 households on the waiting list.

Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, says the situation is worse than it’s ever been in Massachusetts — with the state’s emergency shelter system now serving 4,100 homeless families, or twice its capacity.

“The numbers in shelters are higher than ever before and shelters are scrambling to add on more capacity to meet the need, and we have more families being turned away because they’re found not to be eligible than ever before,” Hayes said.

Last year, the state instituted new standards making it harder for families to qualify for emergency assistance. Liza Hirsch, an attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, says now more than half the families that apply are denied emergency shelter.

“The effect of tighter standards is that families are in very, very dire circumstances,” Hirsch said. “So they’re scrambling to find family members, friends, acquaintances, people they barely know to stay with and then sometimes have to resort to sleeping in cars in sub-freezing temperature. It’s really a crisis.”

Motels As Emergency Shelter

Gornstein says the state office is doing the best it can.

“We are obligated to place every family that’s eligible. We do that the same day and we do it to make sure that the families and children are safe,” Gornstein explained. “And if we don’t have enough emergency shelter beds in our regular shelter system, we then go to hotels and motels. It is not our preference to do that.”

Across the state, a record number of motel rooms are being pressed into service as emergency family shelters.

“It’s pretty depressing,” Hayes said. “It’s cars whizzing by, it’s the only accessible food being sometimes fast food, if you’re lucky. And it’s one room. Imagine your house with just your bedroom and your bathroom.”

Lynnicia, 22, whose last name we’re not using for privacy reasons, doesn’t have to imagine it. For her and her infant son, homelessness is real. Last summer, she was living in an apartment in Taunton when the federal subsidy ran out and the landlord raised the rent to the market rate. Lynnicia couldn’t afford it on her salary as a child care worker, so she and Myshon, now 15 months old, moved out.

“Well, making part-time income was not enough for me to afford my own apartment so I had to apply for a shelter,” Lynnicia explained.

But there was no emergency shelter spaces left in eastern Massachusetts, so the state sent Lynnicia and her son west to a motel in Greenfield.

“I mean, I was grateful to have a place to stay, but Greenfield wasn’t ideal for me,” Lynnicia said. She had never been to Greenfield before. She looked at a map to realize it was two hours from her old apartment in Taunton – too far from her job in Quincy and her son’s doctors in Boston. Myshon has sickle cell anemia. They got help from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and a week later they got a room at the Days Hotel in Brighton. It’s still a three-hour round-trip ride to her job on public transport, but the room is clean and safe and warm. There are two beds, a crib, a small fridge and a microwave.

“I never thought I’d be in shelter, period. I mean, I’ve always been working and I always felt that I was going to make a way, but nowadays, the apartment we had was affordable and now we don’t have anything that’s affordable,” Lynnicia said. “So, I mean, affordable housing would be great.”

“The problem is that the wait lists are very, very long,” Hirsch said. ”Families basically have to apply at all of the different housing authorities separately and they just have to complete application after application after application and then they sit on waiting lists.”

The average homeless family stay in a motel is seven months. The state pays $82 a day, or about $17,000 per family.

In 2008, Massachusetts spent $1 million for the entire year on motel space. This year, it will spend that and more in a week.

“It’s not just about the money, families go through trauma,” said Diane Sullivan, policy director at Homes for Families. She knows firsthand about the human cost of homelessness. Twelve years ago, her husband lost his job and they and their four children lost their home.

“We were evicted for owing just over $1,000,” Sullivan said. Today, if a family is evicted from subsidized housing for failing to pay rent, it cannot qualify for emergency shelter for three years. But back in 2001, the regulations were different and Sullivan’s family did qualify for a motel room. It was Christmas Eve.

“When I talk about it, it brings up these emotions that I guess I haven’t dealt with. But, this is why I do this work. Because it doesn’t need to be. Families don’t need to be homeless,” Sullivan said. “Some families just need a housing subsidy, some families need more than that, we need to stop this cookie cutter approach that says, ‘Here’s the one solution that is going to work for every single one of you.’”

Preventing Homelessness 

Ultimately, homeless advocates and state officials agree. What’s needed is more permanent affordable housing. Lots of it, Gornstein says.

“It’s better for the families and better for the taxpayers,” he explained. But the up-front costs for permanent, affordable housing are very expensive. There’s another approach, Gornstein says: Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT.

“The most cost-effective measure would be to prevent the homelessness in the first place,” Gornstein explained. And state funding for the RAFT prevention program has gone from $200,000 two years ago to $10 million today.

“This is a flagship program which helped 3,000 families from becoming homeless in the first place. And our average level of assistance that we’re providing per family is about $2,500,” Gornstein said. But the RAFT program to prevent homelessness is too late for the 4,100 families in Massachusetts now living in emergency shelters. Among them, Lynnicia and her infant son, Myshon.

“You know what? I don’t care where it is that I stay, as long as there’s a place to stay, you know? Where I can do what I have to do and not stop working,” Lynnicia said. “Where I can continue to care for him and he can continue to get his health care. Other than that, I mean, I’m working, I’m in school, based on that, I kind of want to continue to make a better life for myself.”

Lynnicia is studying online to become a lawyer. Her computer sits on the desk on her motel room in Brighton. A place she’ll call home for the indefinite future.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Mass. scrambling to find housing for its homeless

As numbers hit a record high, state fills shelters, far-off motel rooms

BOSTON GLOBE, By Megan Woolhouse and David Abel, December 02, 2013f Form


Bottom of Form

GREENFIELD — Record numbers of homeless families are overwhelming the state’s emergency shelter system, filling motel rooms at the cost to taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars a year.

An average of nearly 2,100 families a night — an all-time high — were temporarily housed in motel rooms in October, just about equaling the number of families in emergency shelters across the state, according to be the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

The demand for shelter is so great that the state has been temporarily sending homeless families from Boston to motels in Western Massachusetts, although state officials said many have been relocated back again, closer to home.

Aaron Gornstein, the undersecretary for housing, said the surge has followed cuts in state and federal housing subsidies, soaring rents in Greater Boston, and still-high rates of unemployment and underemployment, particularly among lower-income workers.

 “The state as a whole has recovered from the Great Recession faster than most other states, but in many ways we’re still struggling,” Gornstein said. “Federal budget cuts have made the situation worse.”

A recent report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development said the number of homeless people in shelters and living on the streets in Massachusetts has risen 14 percent since 2010 to nearly 20,000 in January 2013, even as homelessness has declined nationally.

This jump in homelessness is another example of an uneven recovery. Even as stocks soar to new heights and real estate values rebound, many of the state’s poorest residents remain without jobs and homes four years after the last recession. The problems have been compounded by the dramatic federal spending cuts, known as sequestration, which have cut housing and food subsidies.

“There’s no question, this is a continuing legacy of the Great Recession,” said Michael Goodman, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “There’s more we can do to help, but it’s not likely, given where federal policy is. That suggests it’s going to be a very long winter for many.”

In the Western Massachusetts community of Greenfield, taxicabs pull up to the Quality Inn, but instead of tourists or business travelers with wheeled luggage, homeless families toting belongings in trash bags emerge.

Gretchen Vazquez is one of them. She moved into a room in the Quality Inn in October with her two daughters, 1- and 9-years-old, when the state subsidy for her Roxbury apartment ran out after the Legislature stopped funding a program called HomeBASE. The program was created to provide an alternative to emergency shelters.

The cramped motel, Vazquez lamented, is far from her evangelical church and her daughter’s school in West Roxbury. After missing about two weeks of school, her daughter enrolled in the public school system here.

“I’m stuck,” said Vazquez. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Massachusetts has one of the most extensive shelter systems in the country. Unlike most states, it offers emergency housing to anyone who qualifies. Many end up in shelters or living in homes that board families in rooms, known as congregate housing.

Motels are one of the state’s most expensive options at $82 a night, almost as much as congregate housing’s $100 a night cost. In the past five years, state spending on motels has exploded to more than $46 million from about $1 million in 2008, according to state records

The average motel stay, state housing officials said, is about seven months, although some families live in motels for a year waiting for affordable housing.

Libby Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families, a Boston advocacy group, said it is not surprising that low-income workers with fewer skills cannot make ends meet since even college graduates are struggling to find work.

“The economy is not working,” Hayes said. “How do we expect people from the lowest income tier to make it if people who have had opportunities can’t?”

The recent jump in homeless people signals that people have run out of alternatives, said Randy Albelda, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Many families were able to stay off the streets by living off savings, doubling up with family members, or sleeping on friends’ couches, Albelda said. But eventually their money or relatives’ good will “just runs out.”

“Families close to the edge have not been able to pull back from the edge in this recovery,” Albelda said. “That’s in part because the recovery has not affected the bottom 30 to 40 percent of people.”

Rather than warehousing families in motel rooms, said Jim Greene, director of the Emergency Shelter Commission of Boston, the state needs more long-term rental assistance programs that target families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

“That’s how you bring the numbers down, with the right social services,” he said. “Short-term programs don’t get people out of homelessness.”

Felicita Diaz’s family — her mother, 20-year-old sister, and 11-year-old brother — moved to an EconoLodge in Northborough for three weeks this fall after the housing subsidy for their Dorchester apartment ended.

Diaz, 18, a freshman at UMass Boston, said she took the commuter rail to get to her first day of college and then stayed with friends so she could attend classes and keep her job in the admissions office. But her 11-year-old brother missed about three weeks of school because the family could not afford the daily $9 fare to and from Boston on the commuter rail. Her mother had to quit her English as a Second Language classes because of the distance.

The family has temporarily moved to an apartment in Chelsea, continuing to hunt for affordable housing. Diaz’s brother is back in school, but her mother will have to wait until spring to enroll again in English classes.

“It’s been really hard,” Diaz said.


Where Is the Love? - Nicholas Kristof, NYT, 27 November 2013

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, Published: November 27, 2013

When I’ve written recently about food stamp recipients, the uninsured and prison inmates, I’ve had plenty of pushback from readers.

A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested: “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”

A reader in Washington bluntly suggested taking children from parents and putting them in orphanages.

Jim asked: “Why should I have to subsidize someone else’s child? How about personal responsibility? If you procreate, you provide.”

After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.

“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?”

Such scorn seems widespread, based on the comments I get on my blog and Facebook page — as well as on polling and on government policy. At root, these attitudes reflect a profound lack of empathy.

A Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske, has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often react as if they are seeing things, not people. Her analysis suggests that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with revulsion.

So, on Thanksgiving, maybe we need a conversation about empathy for fellow humans in distress.

Let’s acknowledge one point made by these modern social Darwinists: It’s true that some people in poverty do suffer in part because of irresponsible behavior, from abuse of narcotics to criminality to laziness at school or jobs. But remember also that many of today’s poor are small children who have done nothing wrong.

Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, for example. Do we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly because his dad is a deadbeat? Should a girl not be able to go to preschool because her mom is an alcoholic?

Successful people tend to see in themselves a simple narrative: You study hard, work long hours, obey the law and create your own good fortune. Well, yes. That often works fine in middle-class families.

But if you’re conceived by a teenage mom who drinks during pregnancy so that you’re born with fetal alcohol effects, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you from before birth. You’ll perhaps never get traction.

Likewise, if you’re born in a high-poverty neighborhood to a stressed-out single mom who doesn’t read to you and slaps you more than hugs you, you’ll face a huge handicap. One University of Minnesota study found that the kind of parenting a child receives in the first 3.5 years is a better predictor of high school graduation than I.Q.

All this helps explain why one of the strongest determinants of ending up poor is being born poor. As Warren Buffett puts it, our life outcomes often depend on the “ovarian lottery.” Sure, some people transcend their circumstances, but it’s callous for those born on second or third base to denounce the poor for failing to hit home runs.

John Rawls, the brilliant 20th-century philosopher, argued for a society that seems fair if we consider it from behind a “veil of ignorance” — meaning we don’t know whether we’ll be born to an investment banker or a teenage mom, in a leafy suburb or a gang-ridden inner city, healthy or disabled, smart or struggling, privileged or disadvantaged. That’s a shrewd analytical tool — and who among us would argue for food stamp cuts if we thought we might be among the hungry children?

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics.

For those who are well-off, it may be easier to castigate the irresponsibility of the poor than to recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random chance and early upbringing.

Low-income Americans, who actually encounter the needy in daily life, understand this complexity and respond with empathy. Researchers say that’s why the poorest 20 percent of Americans donate more to charity, as a fraction of their incomes, than the richest 20 percent. Meet those who need help, especially children, and you become less judgmental and more compassionate.

And compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Look Back at the 2013 PortBury Follies

A lovely slideshow capturing highlights from our 2013 event. If you came, look for yourself in the pictures --- and if you didn't, see what fun we had? You won't want to miss next year!

Our thanks to Shelley Parrish for not only being on hand to take all the pictures but also for the hours she spent creating the slide show!

Shopping on Amazon to Benefit ROOF Over Head

While I always try to shop local, sometimes Newburyport doesn’t have what I need. Thus I turn to

They have everything I need, deliver to my door, support the US Post Office with their new Sunday delivery program (!), AND NOW SUPPORT THEY ROOF!

A few weeks ago, Amazon launched, a super simple way to shop and benefit ROOF. After an easy sign up to choose your charity, the absolutely only thing you need to do is to go to Your account and charity will automatically pop up and Amazon will donate .5% of all of your purchases to ROOF. You *must* type in to get the donation --- going to just will not help our cause.

If you would like to receive easy step-by-step directions with screenshots , send an email to And please pass on to others who might be willing to support ROOF!
Thanks so much for considering.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The lighter side of politics - ROOF's PortBury Follies

Candidates will present their lesser-seen talents at Port Follies

Sixteen enthusiastic candidates running for local office will grace the stage at the Firehouse Center on Friday night. But these candidates, including Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday and one of her challengers, Greg Earls, will not be delivering a speech, but will instead show the world their other talents during the third annual Portbury Follies.

“There’s a lot going on in a couple of hours,” said Follies executive producer Susanne Cameron. “It’s a busy election; therefore, we have a very busy show.”

The Follies, a variety show to benefit the Roof Over Head Collaborative, Inc., will feature two hours of music, dance, spoken word and even some magic, all performed by the people who want your vote in the mayoral and City Council races this November. Roof Over Head is a nonprofit organization that provides housing to local families in transition in Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury.

“We’re trying to keep it apolitical,” Cameron said. “It’s really just a chance for people to come out and have fun, and the fact that they are here means that they are running. We got this idea from a group in Hyde Park in Boston. They did a fundraiser for theater there and they invited their candidates to perform, including (Boston) Mayor Menino and other candidates in the Boston area. And it was a huge success.”

So, Cameron figured, why not do it in Newburyport?
“The first year we ran it, it was also a (local) election year,” Cameron said. “The candidates are not allowed to stump. They are not allowed to bring campaign signs. They are not allowed to do anything political. They are just allowed to get out there and have fun.”

But still, it worked. Holaday performed a spoken word performance and City Councilor Ed Cameron sang the Beatles tune, “Revolution.” Others who performed were former City Councilor Kathleen O’Connor Ives, who sang a tune, and City Councilor Ari Herzog, who also gave a spoken word performance.

With the national election taking center stage, last year’s Follies featured local luminaries such as Ann Ormond of the Newburyport Chamber of Commerce, president of the Provident Bank Charlie Cullen, the Rev. Harold Babcock of the First Religious Society of Newburyport and local singer Maggie Budzyna. Inn Street Barber Shop owner Esther Sayer was the co-emcee last year and will be returning to the role this year.

“That was really an amazing show,” Cameron said. “Because people really practiced and had a really good time with it. We had a fabulous, fabulous show. And now, in our third year, we were almost to the point where we had to turn candidates away.”

Although the specifics of their acts this year are confidential, Holaday will be taking the stage as will mayoral challenger Earls. City Council candidates Herzog, Ed Cameron, Sheila Mullins, Bruce Menin, Barry Connell, Laurel Allgrove, Meghan Kinsey, Bruce Vogel, Jared Eigerman, Charlie Tontar, Bob Cronin, Chris Welch, Sean Reardon and Leslie Eckholdt will also be entertaining the crowd.

“We have a lot of singing,” said Cameron. “We have quite a bit of comedy. We have some spoken word stories and a magic trick. Regardless of whether the performance is really good or really bad, I think the audience really appreciates the fact that they are there. It’s a heartwarming feeling that people sort of get from these folks that they are having fun and they are not professional entertainers. They are really putting themselves out there, especially in this world of social media.”

A house band will accompany the performers and the Lighthouse Trio and Friends will perform as well.

Portbury Follies once again a dazzling night


Portbury Follies once again a dazzling night

To the editor:
Roof Over Head Collaborative, Inc. hosted The Third Annual Portbury Follies at The Firehouse Center for the Arts on Friday, Sept. 6. The evening celebrated the community and its very talented and brave candidates running in this year’s election.
We would like to thank the following organizations and individuals for their support: The Firehouse Center for the Arts; Boston Beer Company; Carry Out Cafe; Diane Xenelis and Starbucks; Shelley Parish Photography; Leary’s Wine and Spirits; Anchor Stone Deck Pizza, Fowles Gourmet Market, Dianne’s Fine Desserts, Not Your Average Joe’s, The Grand Trunk, Shaw’s, Joppa Fine Foods, Marzi Design, and Loretta Restaurant. We would also like to thank our sponsors: iMarc; Strem Chemical; Ej Ouelette and Whole Music; and The Dance Place.
We showcased an amazingly talented group of performers who dazzled and delighted our audience. These included: our wildly funny emcees Charlie Cullen and Esther Sayer and our performers: Ed Cameron, Laurel Allgrove, Sheila Mullins, Bruce Menin, Jared Eigerman, Charlie Tontar, Bob Cronin, Donna and Joe Holaday, Chris Welch, Lighthouse Trio, Barry Connell, The Dance Place, Ari Herzog, Meghan Kinsey, Greg Earls, Sean Reardon, Bruce Vogel, Ann Ormond, Leslie Eckholdt and EJO and Crazy Maggy, as well as Newburyport High School student Max DiMartino and Central Catholic student Beth McDougall, both residents of Newburyport.
And special thanks to Susanne Cameron and Hailey Klein, our incredibly talented co-executive producers; Christin Walth — for her tireless efforts; our rock’n House Band: Lark Madden, Ken Okaya, and Tomas Havrda; with Joe Holaday, and our dedicated Board of Directors: Bill Abbott, Leslie Eckholdt, Susanne Cameron, Kate Lee, Walter Power and Lark Madden.
Roof will continue to support our community providing transitional, supportive housing to homeless and at-risk families in our community.
Walter Power and Kerri Sheeran Perry
Co-presidents, Roof Over Head Collaborative

Sunday, August 25, 2013



Come join us to fight poverty in our community Immaculate Conception Parish

Society of St. Vincent de Paul

When: Saturday – September 28, 2013

             Registration: 8:15 – 9 am

             Start time:     9:00 am

Distance 4K (2.5 miles)

Where:  Walk begins in the Immaculate Conception parking lot behind the school

Who:     Kids birth to 100 (kids under 12 must be accompanied by an adult)


If you talk the talk, you need to walk the walk

 Newburyport, Newbury, West Newbury

To make a donation: Send check to “Society of St Vincent de Paul – Walk

 C/O I.C. Parish 42 Green St., Newburyport, MA 01950


Register to walk or to make a pledge online: at:


If you have questions e-mail - Jan Kolman at:

Monday, June 3, 2013

A celebration of thanks

Last week we gathered to celebrate the incredible people, businesses, and organizations who have supported ROOF Over Head.  Their dedication to ROOF is invaluable and has made it possible for the organization to purchase its third home and welcome its fourth family.

Thank you!