By John Swinconeck, Contributing Writer
Part 2 of a two-part feature- part 1 was in the Dec. 20 issue of the Community Advocate and can be found here.
Region – The causes of homelessness in Massachusetts are myriad, according to Julie Stanwood, director of Friends of Families in Transition, a nonprofit, volunteer organization that provides services to those living in local hotels. These may include lack of education, loss of employment, or a sudden illness that creates a loss of income. Sometimes it's poor choices or an addiction.
“A lot of these people are working,” Stanwood said, but many of them are being paid minimum wage, which is insufficient to live on. “If you’re lacking education or specific skills, you can’t support your family. Even Massachusetts affordable housing is not truly affordable.”
An unexpected family illness can quickly lead to missed work and lost wages. Money that would usually go to pay for heat or electricity may wind up going to pay for medical bills.
Families may often wait for months just to hear from caseworkers that Stanwood described as “totally overloaded.”
“There's a family in Westborough who moved in August and haven’t seen any caseworkers,” Stanwood said.
Until then, families are often left to figure out how to live in the area by themselves. “They don’t know the area. No one tells them how to get their kids into the schools.”
Where food comes from depends on what services are available in any community. For example, in Northborough, the food pantry will deliver food to families. Friends of Families in Transition will also drive families in Northborough and Westborough to Wal-Mart to buy groceries.
Life in a motel
In addition to the bigger issues of relocating, finding work, and enrolling children in new schools, families like that of Pearl Dionysopoulos need to cope with the day to day living out of a one-room hotel. The last of Dionysopoulos’ five children leaves for school by 8:30 a.m. Depending on the day, Dionysopoulos will either clean the rooms or do laundry. She may visit family in Medford, where she may cook some meals to bring back to the hotel. To kill time, she’ll have coffee with the hotel's front desk manager.
“I can’t stay in the room all day. I can’t just sit and watch TV,” Dionysopoulos said.
When the kids are out of school, they watch TV, do homework, or go to the YMCA, thanks to a pass given to the family by a Northborough police officer. Weekends are spent at friends’ houses, but Dionysopoulos family is not allowed visitors at the Econolodge.
“They don’t have a social life no more,” Dionysopoulos said. “We try to go swimming whenever we can. We do Wal-Mart runs, Christmas Tree Shops runs. Other than that, it's quiet time in the two rooms.”
Most of the children have adjusted to life in a hotel, but Dionysopoulos said her eldest daughter is still having a hard time with it. To make things a bit homier, Dionysopoulos said she just bought a small, plastic tree to help get the family in the holiday spirit.
“There's nothing luxurious about living in a hotel,” said Stanwood. “You’re changing diapers, washing, all in that room. You’re trying to cook in a microwave.”
For Dionysopoulos, who loves to cook, not having her own kitchen, pots, pans, and utensils, is difficult.
“It is what it is,” Dionysopoulos said. “It is a roof over our head. There's no space, no kitchen.”
That lifestyle can lead to depression in many families. They also live with the uncertainty that any day the state could uproot them again and place them in affordable housing in yet another community.
Getting a family into a hotel may take less than a day, getting them out often takes months. “There's no plan set up to get these people out of the hotels,” Stanwood said.
While the state may eventually provide a family with funds for a security deposit and first and last months’ rent to get them started, there is little other support, including life skills education that could prevent the families from becoming homeless all over again.
Families are not allowed in each other's rooms, and those under 18 are not allowed outside their rooms without parental supervision. Three violations can get a family kicked out of their hotel. Such restrictions can make it difficult to find a job.
“I’m trying to find work here, but my kids can’t be out of the room unsupervised at all,” Dionysopoulos said, speaking in the hotel's second floor lounge, a small room with cinderblock walls adjacent to the laundry room. “They can’t come up here and go to the ice machine. It makes it hard, because I want to find a job.”
While vouchers are available for daycare, they are difficult to get, Stanwood said, and they are not accepted by all daycare centers.
“We’re not doing anything to guide them into a better situation,” Stanwood said.
Municipalities need to have compassion, said Stanwood, acknowledging the strain the sudden influx of homeless families has on the schools, notably transportation for the children who have been placed in communities too far from their schools.
“Shrewsbury schools are already at capacity,” Stanwood said. “I don’t know what the state expects of them.”
Ultimately, Dionysopoulos said her goal is to find a more permanent home. The woman who once balked at the idea of relocating to Northborough said she wants to stay in the community.
“Boston is Boston, but now I’m here. I think this is a better area for them,” Dionysopoulos said. “I’m on an emergency list and they could call me any day and send me back to Boston. You’ll have to restrain me. I don’t want to go back to Boston. It's not good for my kids.”
“It's easy to say that it's not a great scenario,” said State Senator Michael O. Moore (D-Millbury). “It's easy to say we don’t like this situation, but where do you want them to live, and at what cost?”