Homelessness and Shelters

Notes from Fifth Meeting on Homelessness on Wednesday, May 23, at 7 pm

Presented by HOPE in Action in conjunction with Pennies for Poverty

Central Congregational Church 14 Titcomb St. Newburyport

Speakers: Andy Dear, Housing Opportunities through Partnerships and Education (HOPE) in Action

Major Todd Hughes, Salvation Army

Leslie Lawrence, Assistant Director, Emmaus

26 people attending

Andy: This is the fifth community meeting presented by HOPE in Action in conjunction with Pennies for Poverty and will be the last one until September. The planning group will continue to meet over the summer. If you would like to join, email pennies@pennieforpoverty.org

Leslie: Emmaus started in 1986 with two shelters:  30 beds for individuals and 54 for families with kids. With that capacity they serve 400 individuals and 170 families a year. They soon realized that the solution to the housing crisis was in building more affordable housing, not just providing shelter to those who have no place to go. They now own and manage 97 housing units for formerly homeless individuals and 26 units of family housing. In addition, Emmaus works closely with the Dept of Transition Assistance in Lawrence to help their clients determine whether they qualify for housing subsidies and other services. A big issue in our area is transportation. People must go in person the DTA office in Lawrence to get benefits– a trip that takes 2.5 hours by bus one way. Emmaus can help make the trip worthwhile by advising on eligibility for programs.

Major Todd: Salvation Army provides financial assistance with rent and utilities, a food pantry and a drop-in center. They provide some meals (lunch on Wednesdays and a dinner on Thursdays) and religious services. Once cold weather hits 20 degrees the SA provides an emergency shelter for those who are homeless. They were open for 40 days this winter. They can house up to 150 people. The shelter also operates as the area’s emergency shelter in case of flooding, electric outages, etc.

Question 1: Why are people homeless?  Many are 1 paycheck away so if an emergency strikes,– medical issues, loss of jobs, they can’t pay their rent or mortgage.  There are as many reasons are there are homeless people. Plus housing is unaffordable for many in our area. Most families Emmaus serves have only $700 in income.  And some have mental and substance abuse conditions which drain money away from subsistence. Emmaus supports housing first (ie, get them housed first and then help them deal with issues they face) with wrap-around services, but there are not enough units available.  Winter is the worst time and people tend to go in and out for services at both Salvation Army and at Emmaus.

Question 2: What is life like in a shelter?  Todd: People are just relieved to get warm. They feel gratitude. Leslie: But they are also upset and angry that they are there. In a shelter they lose their rights to come and go. They feel like they have lost dignity and respect. And there are rules (to ensure safety) that some don’t want (ie, no smoking indoors); there were no rules when they were on their own living in the woods. People live in close proximity to each other in shelters and for some that is uncomfortable. At Emmaus singles must leave during the day but their bed is saved for them if they intend to return. Families can stay all day and are provided with three meals a day. Families share a partial kitchen and a bath. Staff check for health issues. There is a housing worker who advocates for each resident and tries to find them housing. Staff also provide case management services to help residents get back on their feet for 12 months after they are housed.

Question 3: What are some challenges? Both speakers mentioned the need for their clients to believe in themselves and feel their dignity. This is a complicated issue as so many are ashamed to find themselves homeless. One woman was in a house for 1 year, but didn’t believe she could get a job as a receptionist. With staff encouragement, she applied, got the job and is now a manager. It takes a caring staff to restore self-esteem.  And it takes a while for staff to gain residents’ trust.  Emmaus’ mission is to get clients to public programs which can help them qualify for disability or job programs.  But they need a stable place to stay first.  It’s harder for single people than for families. There is a huge need for outreach to communities that do not have the institutions or services that Haverhill provides. Todd sees the biggest challenge is loss of their freedom as many homeless prefer to live by themselves. Now they have to live with others and there are rules he must insist on to keep all residents and staff safe.  He says he tries to steer people to services and his motto is to not give up on them.  Often the people who use the temporary shelter help cook and clean in the building.

Question 4: What can our community as a whole do to help?  Todd:  Volunteer at soup kitchens. Help at the emergency shelter in the winter. Donate.  Provide socks, shirts.  Above all, talk with people who participate in community meals or panhandle on the streets.  Leslie: Volunteer at Emmaus. Emmaus gives two tours a month and has a volunteer training program. Volunteers help to cook, clean, work with kids in the family shelter; provide services for their after- school program and summer camp and family events. People can help fund transportation services—to Lawrence, to the welfare office.  Bus service to get to Lawrence is cumbersome, with lengthy routes. The outreach worker at Emmaus goes to people where they are to start the process of determining eligibility…so when they have to get to Lawrence they have the right information with them. Leslie also mentioned the Cycle for Shelter fundraiser Emmaus has on July 22nd. And she handed out a page of information on state house budget issues that affect the homeless…and encouraged citizen advocacy.

Question from audience: How do you respond to people who don’t respect people who are homeless and treat them poorly? Many residents believe myths about abuses mostly found in more urban environments. In our area, people forget that homeless who don’t have a secure home are in that state because of very human problems. The community must know that all of us deserve respect and an understanding that any of us could wind up with unstable and insecure circumstances. Homeless people just need a home. Suggest that residents go to a meal and talk with the clients. Get to know them as people. An Emmaus manager told about a homeless man he invited into the shelter and who finally accepted the invitation. It turned out he had been a prominent dentist in town who regularly provided free services to the poor. But a medical issue caused him to lose his business and his home. He was too embarrassed to seek help so was living in the street. It can happen to anyone.

From the audience: What’s the process someone goes through to get to a shelter and then get out of the shelter?  Leslie: Going to a shelter is a last resort for most.  Unfortunately, poor people know poor people, so others in their group can’t provide long-term stability or help in an emergency. Most have already stayed with friends (on couches, in hallways) for as long as they can. The state decides who is eligible for services.  Emmaus staff help clients understand the eligibility requirements. Staff counseling focuses what benefits are available, getting kids into school, and steps to get back into the community.  The wait for housing is 5-10 years. Some get housing through a lottery.

From the audience:  What about literacy? Emmaus steers them into GED training programs if they lack their high school diploma. And from there encourages them to build on their degrees for certification for certain jobs.

From the audience: How about veteran services?  There are a few veterans who go to the Salvation Army during the day. Services for homeless veterans are good. The steps taken for Vets (advocates,  cash vouchers, housing priority, etc) provide a good model of how to eliminate homelessness.

Handouts: summary descriptions of different types of shelters, homelessness budget items before the state legislature, continuum of care.

Homelessness and the Schools

Notes from Fourth Meeting on Homelessness on April 25, 2018


 Ed Cameron, CEO of Housing Families, Inc . and former Newburyport city councilor


Susan Viccaro, Newburyport Superintendent of Schools and Angela Bik,
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction

James Montanari, Principal, Salisbury Elementary School

Deb Smith, Executive Director, Pettengill House, which supports the children at Amesbury Schools.

Ed Cameron introduced the panel. He referred to the handout Peter had prepared that showed numbers of homeless students in each school system. In addition, Jim mentioned that Salisbury had 20 – 25% of students who were homeless in each class in the elementary school (about 5 per class)

Their experiences:  All panelistss reported that the school can be the most stable factor in homeless youths’ lives.  Families have fears that their children cannot stay in their school of origin, so many don’t share that they are homeless with the schools. It is a hidden population and many are afraid of state agencies.  Building a trusting relationship is key to helping parents and their kids. Jim responds to his students,“I’ll hold your hand if you need it.”

Reactions among other kids:  All agreed that the other students are welcoming.  Yes, there is some bullying, but not in regards to students being homeless, rather general kids stuff. Schools work on keeping students’ status private.

Multiple Residencies: There are no shelters in the three town area. And though we don’t see people living on the streets, many families are doubled up. In Newburyport, families usually are local.  Some families come from over the border of New Hampshire, some from Emmaus house. But all agreed that many families are chronically homeless. And it is more generational and not situational.  In Salisbury, some live in motels, and in warm seasons, live in campsites. Some have moved to shelters in places like Salem.  Jim has seen many families move away, but return back to the district, which creates unstable life for kids in terms of both education and home life.   Salisbury Elementary School, works with families to try and keep them within the school district whenever possible, to maintain consistency at school for the children.

McKinney- Vento Act – ensures kids can get to school, to maintain consistency for the students, communities of origin will help provide transportation for kids to get to school.

Challenges:  All agreed that transportation is a big issue. School districts cannot predict how many children will need transportation in a given year.  In Newburyport, because the homeless population is low, administrators cannot be reimbursed by the state for their expenses. All educators on the panel discussed that if children need assistance getting to school, the schools will do what is necessary to get the kids to school.  Parents who do find ways to transport their own kids need reimbursement, and in some districts, this is not always possible because of budget restraints. Some programs provide gas cards to parents who are low income. Other major challenges are the lack of housing, jobs, addiction issues, mental trauma because of unstable living conditions.

Successes: They do exist. Staffs are very supportive.  With the right school relationships, some parents are in recovery from substance abuse. Many children find new self-esteem and also lose their fears in the more stable environment of school.  Some go on to higher education once they find the stability that they need to thrive in school. Examples highlighted by the panel include:

  • Newburyport – Young student removed from mother due to her addiction. The school community wrapped around the young student, purchased clothes, food, etc. Child is now with a foster family and is very happy, living a positive life.
  • Pettengill House – A mother with three kids of 6-8-10 years old, was struggling, through the help of Pettengill House, the community supported her, the mother worked hard and now the third child is in college at Umass
  • Salisbury – There are miracles all over Salisbury Elementary School. One family having domestic issues, mother was an addict, is now in recovery, the school supported the mother and family by developing a plan to help them get ahead, now everything is in place, all four kids are doing very well.

Wishes:   Deb of Pettingill House stated it is so painful to see parents who must go to a state shelter.  Panelists agreed that the public needs education about this kind of harsh reality regarding homelessness and poverty in their community to encourage empathy and calls for positive action.  Jim’s wish is for one person to step up for a student who is barely in survival mode. Susan and Angela stated that more services are needed: for transportation, for social workers—Newburyport has just hired a social worker- for better communication about where poor families can find jobs, skills, emotional help.  Angela mentioned a need for a bridge program where struggling parents can find ways to help themselves, to help them learn skills that can aid them in finding jobs, to receive to receive mental care where stress in daily living is so marked.


Several in the audience urged us to work for income equality, smaller classes affordable housing. We need to keep up to date about the state budget process and respond to our legislators accordingly. Question: What about hidden homeless?  Because many homeless families fear disclosure, families can go online to announce their status confidentially so that statistics are more accurate.  Many who are homeless couch-surf and are not counted.  Jim stated that schools find out through teachers, guidance counselors.  What about absenteeism? In Salisbury, it has gone down.  16 % are chronically absent, again Jim thinks because of the relationships that staff have built.  What about a service corps of volunteers to contribute the resources that are currently lacking? A good idea, but confidentiality a problem.  What about the consequences of a defeat of the proposed Triton budget override?  Jim:  we’ll make it work.  What can we do further?  Support Pettingill. Volunteer

Homelessness and Family Day Centers

Notes from third homelessness meeting on Tuesday, February 27, 2018

On Tuesday evening, February 27, over 40 concerned citizens gathered to learn more about issues surrounding housing insecure folks throughout the greater Newburyport area, the third meeting held since early January to educate and engage the community to find solutions for homelessness.

Moderator Lea Pearson, of the Justice Action Ministry from the Unitarian Universalist church, kicked off the meeting by introducing the new Hope in Action Initiative, “The HOPE sub-group was formed out of the larger community meetings to cultivate a caring community around solutions for relieving Housing insecurity by finding Opportunities for involvement through Partnerships and Education.” Pearson added, “The group is made up of community members with varied backgrounds (including some who were formerly homeless), who are focused on educating the greater community about the nature and extent of area homelessness, communicating its shared humanity and – working with the professional social service agencies – providing an avenue for volunteering in assisting the housing insecure.”

The first speaker for the evening, Christopher George of the Amesbury Council on Aging, led the area’s one-night homeless count in late January. He expects the YWCA, the lead organization on the count, to issue the final report later this spring. “This year’s homeless count, which is still being compiled, appears to be somewhat down from last year, but remains well in excess of 400, including over 300 school-aged children.” He added, “The small drop from last year is attributed to the closing of the Turning Point Transitional Housing Facility in Amesbury, which had temporarily welcomed 30 housing insecure individuals.” He went on to coach the volunteers by stating, “To solve the homeless problem, you need a plan to succeed; I have witnessed veterans’ homelessness deep in the process of being solved and after years of non-action, a plan was made; you got to plan!”

“Homelessness is a changing experience,” articulated Reverend Tom Bentley, Executive Director for Gloucester’s Grace Center and the second speaker at the event. The Grace Center is a day resource center serving individuals currently experiencing homelessness or who are experiencing loneliness, old age, high risk situations or crisis. “The center provides gifts of acceptance, hospitality, and opportunity to all who come through its doors,” according to Bentley. He encouraged the group to do a needs analysis, saying, “We knew there were issues with homelessness in our community, they were knocking on my parish door.” He added, “Before getting started to tackle the problem, I and other area clergy knew we should not assume what was needed; we should listen, research and engage professionals in a needs analysis, and so we pooled $5000 and got it done right, ultimately leading to the opening of the Grace Center.”

Christine Bobek, Bentley’s associate, Grace Center’s Director of Social Services and a trained, licensed social-worker, talked about the importance of leadership and action in making things happen for those challenged in life. She explained, “Don’t wait for the money. Find the need, make a plan and get started!” She stressed the importance of volunteers, “Yes, we have professionals like myself and Tom, but most of Grace Center’s programs are administered by well-trained volunteers; they get the work done and form the framework for helping those in need.”

State Representative James Kelcourse (First Essex District) attended the meeting and described a recent personal engagement he had with folks in the area struggling to find housing. He and his wife met a homeless couple camped out in their car in Amesbury. Kelcourse immediately found temporary shelter for the couple and worked with the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army on the couple’s behalf. Excitedly, he reported, “Recently, while stopping for a Dunkin’ break, I was pleased to see that the gentlemen who had been sleeping in the car, now had a job.” Kelcourse went on to say, “My office stands ready to assist this initiative of HOPE in any way we can. Please keep me posted; I want to help.”

The Initiative took names of those looking to volunteer and hopes to match them to local social service agencies. Volunteers are encouraged to visit volunteermatch.org and register their interests and skills. Future educational forums organized by Hope in Action Initiative are planned for late March and late April.

Progress Since the Second Meeting….

Two small groups have formed from attendees at the January community meetings on homelessness. Their joint goal is to take concrete action to help people experiencing homelessness in Newburyport, Amesbury, Salisbury, Newbury and Rowley before year end.

  • One group is made up of local clergy and practitioners from social service agencies that serve the homeless. Their focus is to identify the gaps in services and prioritize what action will be taken.
  • The other group is made up of community members with varied backgrounds, including some who were formerly homeless. Their focus is to educate about the nature and extent of homelessness, communicate its shared humanity and provide an avenue for volunteering.

We will keep you informed about progress as we move forward. We ask that you stay involved by attending the community meetings that we’ll hold throughout the spring and by signing up to volunteer on one of the “crews” we are putting together to take action in areas where help is needed.

Second Meeting on Homelessness: 1/17/2018

Meeting summary:

More than 75 citizens, social services professionals, and advocates gathered at the Central Congregational Church in Newburyport to continue the discussion about solutions to address homelessness in the greater Newburyport area. The intent of the meeting was to outline major focus areas, establish priorities, and create a process for moving forward. Discussion groups were created around the following subject areas, with a summary of their discussion, questions and recommendations outlined below:

  • Brown school: The group encouraged everyone to gather information on the current proposal for use of the  school and to promote attendance at the meeting on January 25 at the school gym at 7:30 pm. Take a moment to learn more about affordable housing with this primer: What Affordable Housing Means  Outstanding questions/issues include:
    • Status of current plan: affordable housing, transitional?
    • Proposal to co-locate youth services and senior housing
    • Number of units for affordable housing vs. partial
    • “not in my backyard” issues, parking issues, zoning issues
  • Local needs: The group discussed gaps in current services and recommended changes to address these gaps, including:
    • Lack of housing inventory, transportation, homeless prevention services, programs to help with upfront housing costs, temporary shelter facilities.
    • Recommendations to partner with local businesses/banks to establish a corporate fund.
    • Recommend hiring a paid homeless advocate for each town
    • Need improved coordination between social service agencies
  • Defining the population: This group discussed the need to define the targeted population. Potential populations:
    young professionals, single parents, service workers who can’t afford to live in the area, seniors,  those coming out of transitional housing including recently released from prison, and not depending on sobriety for admission. Additional criteria could include qualifying income levels and current housing situations.
  • Zoning/housing policy changes: City officials should be invited to future meetings to inform the group on current zoning regulations, changes proposed to ensure funds are available for affordable housing.
  • Existing models: The group reviewed current models in use locally, including St. Vincent de Paul, Family Promise North Shore, a drop-in day center established in Haverhill. Group recommended that multiple models may be needed because one size doesn’t fit all, but they must be closely coordinated with local social services.
  • Additional stakeholders: This group reviewed additional stakeholders who should be actively involved in the homelessness initiative, including: public entities, social service organizations, religious organizations, local corporations, government representatives, hospitals, advocates and those who may be or have experienced homelessness. We should make it a top priority to clarify our mission, who we want to serve, and be able to articulate that to and educate the community.

Next Steps:

  • Establish small group to plan next meeting. Eight people signed up to help plan the next meeting. They have each other’s emails and will go from there. 
  • Review results from January 2018 homeless count when available to inform the group and prioritize the needs of the homeless locally.

Meeting Draws a Big Crowd to Address Homelessness

On January 10, 2018 it was standing room only at a meeting in Newburyport on homelessness, organized by Pennies for Poverty and the Justice Action Ministry at the First Religious Society, with support from the Community Task Force (a network of Social Service Agencies). One hundred and fifteen people filled the room, including representatives from many of the local social service agencies, churches, reporters, and concerned citizens. Also present were Mayor Donna Holaday from Newburyport, former city councilor Ed Cameron, and some folks who had powerful stories of what it’s like to be homeless in the area.

John Feehan, executive director of the YWCA Greater Newburyport, gave a sobering report of those who are homeless  in the area. There are some folks who live under river bridges, but most live in hotels and motels, double-up in apartments (putting their hosts at risk for eviction), and couch surf. Each year the YWCA Greater Newburyport conducts a One Night Homeless Count. The goal of the count is to raise awareness of homelessness within the community, as well as to supply HUD with information about the population of homeless individuals in Newburyport, Newbury, Rowley, Salisbury and Amesbury. The One Night Homeless Count is performed throughout the country by volunteers and agencies committed to reducing the pain caused by homelessness and ultimately eliminating homelessness. To view last year’s homeless count results, see the report. Feehan invited people to participate in the annual one-night homeless count taking place this year on January 31, 3 to 5 PM. Contact the Y is you want to help.

Russell Queen, executive director of Family Promise North Shore in Beverly, shared their successful model of helping homeless families. Several churches in the area work together, and each church hosts a family for a whole week a few times a year. Space is fitted out with cots and mattresses. During that one week, up to four families can sleep there. Volunteers do all the staffing at the churches, and the agency provides a day center for parents who don’t have jobs and or have little children not in school. Support services are provided there. Kids are transported from the churches to school.

Representatives of the North End Boat Club, moved by the article in the newspaper, presented a check for $1,000 to Pennies for Poverty as seed money for this new initiative.

After the presentations, there were 45 minutes of questions, discussing zoning laws, more details about the national family promise model, and a request from Ed Cameron for folks to call state Senator Ives and Representative Kelcourse to vocalize your thoughts on zoning reform. Cameron commented that if just ten people from the room called it would make a difference.The phone number is 617-722-2000.

Mayor Holaday asked people to support the Brown School affordable housing project by coming to a meeting at the school on January 25 at 7 PM.

A follow up meeting is scheduled for Wednesday Jan 17th at the Central Congregational Church. The intention for this next step is to break into working groups to do additional research, understand more about local needs, and identify ways the group can have an impact. We will continue to focus as well on educating and informing the public.