Legislators, providers tackle homelessness

  • Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, speaks at recent legislative breakfast “Steps to Stability: Finding Hope & Home in Franklin County” at Greenfield Community College. STAFF PHOTO/ANITA FRITZ

  • Serena Smith, a DIAL/SELF participant, said at recent legislative breakfast “Steps to Stability: Finding Hope & Home in Franklin County” that the agency helped her when she really needed it and continues to do so. STAFF PHOTO/SERENA SMITH

Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2019 1:10:10 AM

GREENFIELD – When Michael Deuso found himself homeless, he turned to The Living Room on High Street, run by Clinical & Support Options Inc. and its Peer Support Program, so that he could do some laundry, take a shower and spend time with people who understand his situation.

“It has given me what I need,” Deuso said recently. “I’m single with no children, so I’m very thankful for this program. There’s a housing crisis in Franklin County that needs attention.”

Karen Matin, a counselor at ServiceNet’s Warming Shelter, said she found it difficult to work after being diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and then seizures in the 1970s and 1980s, and in 2014, she became homeless.

“I was scared,” she said. “I had no support.”

Matin finally found a bed at a shelter and was helped with the paperwork she needed to fill out to receive disability and subsidized housing. She ended up in transitional housing with four others, and on May 30, 2016, her 28-year-old son committed suicide.

“It was so tough,” she said.

But with the support of local services, she made it through and received a Section 8 voucher for housing.

“I was so excited,” she said. “I was finally going to have my own bathroom.”

But after searching for housing, she found herself waiting – and still waiting.

“There’s a giant void in affordable housing,” Matin said. “It swallows you up. And, if you don’t use your Section 8 voucher within six months, you lose it and go back on a waiting list.”

Matin is now working a part-time job at the Warming Center in Greenfield, and she is hoping she finds her own place soon.

The message from numerous people, including Deuso and Matin, as well as social services leaders across Franklin County, at Community Action Pioneer Valley’s recent legislative breakfast “Steps to Stability: Finding Hope & Home in Franklin County” at Greenfield Community College, was that “much more needs to be done” when it comes to homelessness and affordable housing.

Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, there has to be state policies as a force to end homelessness. She said every community can organize for change.

“This is a normal abnormal problem,” she said. “We are living with the normalization of homelessness – it’s a fact of life that we’re used to. Isn’t that amazing!”

Schwartz challenged the more than 100 people in the room, including legislators and their aids, to “take another look” at homelessness.

“We have to have hope, determination and stamina to end it,” she said. “Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right. Without it, everything else falls apart.”

While legislators have filed bills to help in both the Senate and House, those in social services said everyone has to keep moving forward until everyone has a place to live.

Keleigh Pereira, assistant director of the Step Program at DIAL/SELF, said everyone needs to join in the work to end homelessness, and recognize the trauma and dislocation it causes. 

“Everyone is deserving of housing,” she said. “We need to bring light to the inequities that keep people down.”

Pereira said all social services agencies work well together in Franklin County to make sure people get all of the services available to them.

In Franklin County, according to statistics offered by social services providers, 25 percent of the population is low-income, and 79 percent are rent-burdened, while 60 percent of those are “severely” rent-burdened. There are 42 available apartments for every 100 households in the “extremely low” income range.

Providers said it’s not a surprise, but it makes it very challenging to meet people’s housing needs. Ideas, proposals and laws can make a difference, they said. 

Sen. Jo Comerford. D-Northampton, has filed a bill that proposes doubling excise tax fees for deeds, which have not been raised in 50 years, and creating a local option transfer fee — the money raised from those would go toward increasing affordable housing, climate change and the Community Preservation Act.

There is also a Massachusetts identification bill facing legislators — co-sponsored by Comerford, Rep. Natalie Blais and Rep. Paul Mark — that would provide identification for homeless youths and families. Social services providers said official identification is critical for employment, education, financial accounts and stable housing and without it, many people can’t get any of those things, which just perpetuates the cycle.

Rosa Whelpley, supervisor of the Peer Support Program at Clinical & Support Options, said The Living Room is a great place for people who have been displaced or are dealing with other issues, but it’s only open during the day, and has a capacity for 35 people, which means they still have to worry about where they are sleeping.

Will Anderson, a case worker at DIAL/SELF, said that while it’s great to have so many social services providers, people need more. Social services providers help them become more independent and provide many with a safe place to go during the day, but it’s housing that needs serious attention.

Serena Smith, a DIAL/SELF participant, said the agency helped her when she really needed it and continues to do so. 

“I’ve been working the past four years,” she said. “The biggest issues I see for those without a home are the lack of transportation in rural areas, the need for more access to technologies and a phone, and mental health care for people who have suffered trauma, who are dealing with substance abuse and age discrimination, and help for immigrants.”

Smith said DIAL/SELF is a safety net for many people.

Comerford told the more than 100 people who attended that the local legislative delegation will partner in “this important work” to end homelessness throughout the region. She said while she believes local social services agencies and networks are “rock stars,” she understands that they need help, especially financial.

“Western Mass shapes many of our bills,” Comerford said. “It sets the bar for what legislators can and should do for our communities. We need to raise revenue for housing – we need money for affordable housing. We need to make it happen.”

Comerford then told everyone in the room that legislators should not be re-elected if they can’t find a way to pay for affordable housing.

“We have to make sure government is working for real people,” she said.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-0261, ext. 269, or afritz@recorder.com. 


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