By Dakota Antelman, Managing Editor
MARLBOROUGH – Longtime educator Mark Vital remembers a former student approaching him late last year with difficult news — she was homeless, battling addiction and hungry.
Vital reached out to contacts in town and was able to help this woman get into a local hotel while paperwork to place her in a homeless shelter was processed.
At the end of a weekend in the hotel, though, this former student was told that the city’s closest women’s shelter would not have an open bed for at least two weeks.
“That really disturbed me,” Vital said in a recent interview with the Community Advocate.
Coalition marks short term, long term goals
Vital’s former student had struggled particularly following the death of her mother. Unable to stay in the home she shared with her father for a number of reasons, she couch surfed and lived in her car beginning last summer.
When that car got totaled in an accident she was left without many options.
“I lived in various places but the only stable thing I’ve had was my dog,” she said in a recent interview.
This individual asked that she not be named due to the stigma against addiction and homelessness.
The experience of watching at least two former students experience homelessness inspired Vital to launch the Greater Marlborough Coalition for Homelessness and Hunger earlier this year. An interfaith collaboration of representatives from area churches and outside non-profit organizations, the Coalition is seeking to eventually establish Marlborough’s own women’s homeless shelter.
In the meantime, they’re also looking to strengthen systems that connect individuals in need with help.
“A lot of these churches have parishioners and friends who just stop in their office and say, ‘I’m homeless, what do I do?’” Vital said. “A lot of these churches, they have resources to help that person right away, but it’s inconsistent. Some churches don’t know where to go.”
Vital said he’s already reached out to executives from area hospital chains to discuss opportunities to open up rooms for people struggling with homelessness.
Meanwhile, the chapter of the Society of St. Vincent DePaul at Marlborough’s St. Matthias Church has been running a regularly staffed call line that connects individuals in need with opportunities to get help.
Vital wants to fortify that program through the Coalition.
“That would solve our problem for the homeless during the weekend,” he said, referring to a common issue where individuals needing services on Friday evenings need to wait until Monday mornings for non-profit offices to re-open.
Pre-existing nonprofits continue work
As these efforts move forward in Marlborough, others continue work that predated the formation of the Coalition for Homelessness and Hunger.
Allison Lebowitz leads the Hudson chapter of the Framingham-based group Dignity Matters.
Her organization works to support women and girls experiencing homelessness by providing bras, underwear and feminine hygiene products.
“People don’t realize the cost or how much sanitary products costs or how much a new bra costs,” Lebowitz said in an interview. “…When we do go to those events, it’s really eye opening.”
They hold drives twice each year to distribute these products which, Lebowitz notes, are not covered by programs like WIC.
Alongside Dignity Matters, groups like the Southern Middlesex Opportunity Council regularly work with individuals like Vital to place individuals in any of the many shelters they operate.
The region’s numerous food pantries as well as many other area churches and nonprofit organizations further help fight food insecurity, addiction and other issues that often appear concurrent with homelessness.
‘The system’s not working’
The problems facing individuals experiencing homelessness in the immediate area are numerous, advocates say.
In Marlborough, Vital and the team at the Coalition for Homelessness and Hunger are looking to begin to address some of those issues.
“When I have two of my students who are homeless and don’t know where to go, and their safety is a concern, and they’re hungry in this country, the system’s not working,” Vital said. “It’s just not working.”