Homeless for the Holidays

By Laurie Atwater 

For many families homelessness this holiday season is a fact of life. This past summer, the great recession continued to take a toll on the very poor. Many lost federal and state housing subsidies as well as their jobs.

This past summer, the state of Massachusetts experienced a jump in requests for emergency housing assistance from around 1200 families to over 2000 at the peak of the summer. To meet the need, the state has increased its use of hotels and motels to handle the demand. This, despite the millions that the Patrick administration has directed at homelessness prevention—mostly subsidies in the form of rental vouchers—to help families remain in their housing situations and prevent the cycle of homelessness.

HomeBASE (Building Alternatives to Shelter) is one of the programs administered by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) designed to help those eligible for the state’s Emergency Assistance (EA) stabilize their housing situation. The program offers rental assistance and other housing related assistance and was so popular that the funds for this year (more than $80 million) ran out early. With a shortage of shelter options, families began to once again be placed by the state into hotels and motels in communities all around the Commonwealth. Additionally, HomeBASE is a time-limited (2 year) program and is scheduled to be phased out this June. Many families are beginning to cycle out of the program and are once again without adequate funds for housing. Homeless advocates worry that the numbers of homeless will continue to grow as this program phases out.

Those who find themselves housed in a motel, are forced to accept shelter that can be far away from where they originally lived. This creates major disruption for the children—who often shift schools—and hardship for the parents who may lose their jobs when move too far away. Families land in unfamiliar communities and in locations that are not easy to manage without a car. They become isolated and have no social support.

This practice is also challenging for the towns where the motels are located. By law—the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act of 2001—the communities must take responsibility for moving these children into their schools—often with little or no warning to the district.

The first item in the federal law states:

Each State educational agency shall ensure that each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.

The community is also responsible for transporting the children to school and in some cases that means transporting them back to their original community. While these transportation costs are shared between the two communities, and ultimately reimbursed by the state, the town must cover the costs until the reimbursement is dispersed.

The state pays a little over $80 a day for a motel room under contract for this purpose. It would be far cheaper to provide rental assistance if affordable units were available, but the statewide shortage of affordable housing continues despite progress with the 40B developments and other programs.

In October the Massachusetts House and Senate approved a supplemental to the budget that includes $13million in additional funding for sheltering in hotels and motels. Lawmakers and advocates alike are frustrated with the seemingly little progress being made against the homelessness issue in the state and promise to seek more long term solutions in FY14.

Case workers from the agencies administering the HomeBASE funds work with homeless families in the motels to help them find a more permanent housing solution. Many families are in need of help with acquiring English language skills to become more employable and general assistance like SNAP funds for food.

In Lexington, the Quality Inn is housing a number of homeless families. The exact number is uncertain, but according to a report prepared for the school committee by Valerie Viscosi, K-12 Director of Guidance and Tessa Riley, K-12 Assistant Director of Guidance, “In Lexington the majority of our current homeless families are living in a local hotel.” The report was presented at the November 19th School Committee meeting by Viscosi who advocated for a .5 Social Worker to handle the “significant amount of case management” involved in dealing with the “families that have joined our community.” Most of the students residing at the Quality Inn are attending Estabrook and they propose that the social worker use that school as home base.

The memorandum states:

As of the date of this memorandum, there are 25 families identified as homeless living in Lexington. Among those families, there are 26 school-aged children. Sixteen of the children attend their “school of origin” in another community, while 10 attend a Lexington Public School. Of those children who are attending the Lexington Public Schools, 7 attend elementary schools, 1 attends middle school, and 2 attend high school. Many of the families also have younger children. There are reportedly 28 children under the age of 5.

Presenting to the school committee Viscosi discussed the complexity of the different family situations, the need for a wide array of services from Free School lunch to health care and educational interventions such as English Language Learner assistance. She also described the difficulty of navigating the state systems and locating the appropriate agencies to deal with regarding the care of the students in their charge. And she noted that these students are truly in the charge of the Lexington Public Schools—by law.

Currently guidance staff has been stretched thin trying to assess each child and develop an appropriate plan for intervention. Having the part-time social worker would alleviate the stress on the schools and help to further develop protocols, procedures and policies moving forward.

These students could be in Lexington anywhere from 6 months to a year. Families must try to create a life for their children within the four walls of a motel room. It is a situation that is almost untenable for these families who cannot prepare healthy meals, get outside or even get to their children’s teacher conferences. Still, it is better than being without shelter in the middle of winter.

Concerned Lexingtonians have begun to rally around the children attending school in Lexington and their families. Church groups and the PTSAs are organizing for action. The Lexington Human Services Department headed by Charlotte Rodgers is stepping up to help.

This story is just beginning to develop in Lexington. Ashley Rooney has been following the issue of homelessness and wanted to hear the story from the perspective of one of the residents at the Quality Inn. What follows is an account of Ashley’s visit with Osamah Salman, his wife Maha and their four children.

 

Osamah Salman and his wife Maha. and their four children: (from right to left) Muntedar, age 10; third-grade twin daughters, Hawraa and Zahraa, and 2 ½ year old Hasah.  The school aged children attend Estabrook School in Lexington.

Osamah Salman and his wife Maha. and their four children: (from right to left) Muntedar, age 10; third-grade twin daughters, Hawraa and Zahraa, and 2 ½ year old Hasah. The school aged children attend Estabrook School in Lexington.

Hoping for a Better Future

By E. Ashley Rooney

Photo by Peter Lund

 

My curiosity overwhelmed me! I knew homeless people supported by state social services were living in the Quality Inn in Lexington, but I didn’t see much happening around town to support them. Nor did I see people hanging out around the inn. What was going on? I had heard many stories about the “motel people” in Bedford and the community providing them with healthy food and services, but nowhere in my travels around town did I hear about the motel folks in Lexington.

So I went to the bustling food pantry at the Church of Our Redeemer and met Osamah Salman and his friend Ali Ai, who are from Jordan. The next day, I went to the Quality Inn on Bedford Street to meet Osamah and his wife Maha. They have four children: Muntedar, age 10; third-grade twin daughters, Hawraa and Zahraa, and 2 ½ year old Hasah. The school aged children attend Estabrook School in Lexington.

The six members of Osamah’s family have lived in two small motel rooms for over a year. They cook, sleep, bathe, play, and do their homework in these two rooms; they are not supposed to loiter outside. Every morning, the children go off to school at Estabrook and the parents attend English classes at Middlesex Community College.

When I went to see them, the twin girls waved shyly from their bedroom door. Preschooler Hasah came out smiling happily and followed me into his parents’ room. Pumpkins sat on the window sill and a Unicef box was sitting on the telephone. Leaning against one bed was a bicycle—their only means of transportation other than the bus. Across from the bike stood the motel mini-refrigerator and a small microwave oven—the kitchen.

They all said they wanted out of the motel and into a home. Nine year-old Hawraa said, “We want a kitchen and a room for the family.” Muntedar and Zahraa added that they wanted a back yard. Their parents echoed the need. Their mother said living in the motel was like living in a cage–one they don’t often escape.

In 1989, Osamah and Maha left Southern Iraq because of Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime. They went to Jordan, where they had their children. Osamah did stonework in the construction industry; Maha was a busy housewife with four children. Although he had a good job there they felt that their future was limited because of their Iraqi background. They were not accepted.

They wanted to live in a democratic country. Osamah said, “We wanted freedom.” On July 5, 2012, they immigrated to America. They began their life here the day after our Independence Day. Osamah quickly realized that with “zero language skills” finding work would be difficult.

Like many of our forebears, they came here for the American dream. Fulfilling that dream has been very challenging, but they persist. The Department of Social Services sent them to a shelter and told them to get a job, but the language barrier proved too difficult—Osamah couldn’t understand the application or respond well to the interviewer. His first priority is to learn English and he is studying hard. I mentioned that they might want a tutor and they lit up.

Meanwhile, Osamah wants to work. He is looking for part-time labor during the college breaks and on weekends. He will shovel snow, build a fireplace or clean a basement … whatever it takes to make his way in this country.

 

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