In the essay below, Lizzie reflects on her personal experience of being homeless as a young adult. Lizzie is now a full-time student and a speaker in MHSA’s Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau.
I used to be broken. I slept on beaches, rooftops, benches, and in parks. I blamed myself, I thought I deserved that. The streets have a way of eating you up inside; making you forget all of the good things and constantly playing back all of the bad.
Stabbed, kidnapped, beaten, raped and thrown away. I was just a kid when these things happened. Domestic violence, juvenile detention centers, foster care and countless youth shelters. I was only a kid. Courts, prisons and abuse. Wasn’t I just a kid?
I may have been an adult in number when I found myself on the streets, but I didn’t know how this world worked.
And now I found myself huddling…in a crevice in the pouring rain on the rooftop of the very building my abuser lived in. Just three floors below, my abuser slept. In the same bed where she had forced me against my will so many times. The same apartment I had called “home.”
I was dealt a pretty rough hand of cards, but remember, we have to work with the cards we were dealt, we can’t change that. I’ve been stabbed, mistreated, and kidnapped…twice. I have witnessed domestic violence surround my mother, have been shuffled around in foster care and dropped at youth shelters. I spent more nights sleeping on the concrete slabs of Juvenile Hall than I can even count and watched as they took my own mother away to prison. I know firsthand the pain and shame of abuse at the hands of those you love. All these things I’ve experienced and not a single one could compare to how it feels to be young and homeless. To have absolutely nothing and absolutely no one. To see your life completely shattered.
I found myself scavenging for cans and change just to survive. I couldn’t sleep long, the other homeless kids and I, we would take shifts. It’s a cruel world out there, I learned that so fast.
I am NOT nothing. I am a SOMEONE. I have FEELINGS and DREAMS and FEARS just like everyone who passed us on the streets looking at us like we were nothing. The hardest part of being homeless…? Feeling invisible. Seeing myself begin to hate the beautiful world we live in. Feeling like I didn’t belong. Feeling forgotten and lost. Fear. Worry. And the worst of all…the cold. The harsh evil unforgiving cold. I felt like I kept getting rocks thrown at me and I just couldn’t stand up, not this time.
But I did—with the help of people who believed in me, who cared and who listened, I finally picked myself up and faced every challenge head on, determined to be what I saw inside myself.
These days, I’m a full time student in the city at Bay State College studying Criminal Justice and dreaming of the days where I’ll work with youth in crisis and make a difference too. I have a beautiful apartment of my very own now, and bills that I can actually pay! I have friends that are my family and a life in Boston that I wouldn’t give up for the world. These days, I believe in myself and the dreams that I have. These days, I know I won the battle.
None of us are above life’s hardships. Don’t be afraid to look outside the box, to look past people’s outward shells. Homelessness can strike any moment; family violence, poverty, domestic abuse, displaced veterans….we can all experience homelessness. There are millions of people left with nothing every day. So next time, before you think to judge, remember this: life is not always “what you see is what you get.”
To bring speakers like Lizzie to share their stories with your school or community group, contact the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-367-6447.
This week, we share a reflection from Kirstie Moreno, an AmeriCorps VISTA placed at the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. As one of the coordinators of the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, Kirstie has the opportunity to travel with speakers across Massachusetts and New England to raise awareness of homelessness and its solutions among schools and community groups. Here she reflects on her experience working with the Speakers’ Bureau and the importance of remembering our shared humanity.
After spending the majority of my college years in anthropology and psychology classrooms, I graduated with a weakness for being excessively analytical. Despite all the unnecessarily convoluted theories, the simplest message I took away from my college experience was this: while we all have diverse life experiences as individuals, we also all share the common experience of being human.
As a coordinator of the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, I’ve heard many stories of struggle, and I’m surprised by how unfathomably amazing our speakers are each time they present their stories. I consistently find myself in awe of their strength, will and courage—every time our speakers agree to a speaking engagement, they are going out in front of a huge group of strangers to lay bare their experiences of hardship and to advocate for those who are still without homes.
Astonishingly, and fortunately for anyone who meets them, our speakers have found the strength and wisdom not only to overcome their individual sets of struggles, but also to advocate—no longer defining themselves by their struggle but instead by how they overcame it. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if these individuals can attribute their homelessness to unavoidable, generational cycles of abuse, poverty, violence, or substance abuse, or if they openly take responsibility for the choices that led them to the street. Regardless of their particular experiences of homelessness, they share a very similar mantra—while life doesn’t hold guarantees, we have an obligation to have a net positive effect on those we can affect.
Our speakers’ inspiring perspectives on life are, for me, a true embodiment of the humanism that I wish so many of us would share—no more defining ourselves by our greatest differences but instead by our ultimate similarity, our humanity, in order to best seek and further social progress. Everyone needs to fulfill the basic human needs of security and shelter in order to create a home. Just think back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; in order to even begin thinking about tomorrow, you need to know where you will be tonight. I personally believe that the best way to address the basic human need of shelter is by providing housing opportunities for un-housed individuals through Housing First initiatives. The speakers of the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau are on the road week in and week out—sharing their stories, talking about the importance of Housing First and reminding all of us that as part of one humanity, we are responsible for each other.
Having traveled with our speakers to present to nearly 2,000 people in the last four months, I have seen the speakers’ courage again and again. I hope their stories will encourage people to recognize our shared responsibility to ensure an equally humane existence for everyone.
To schedule a Speakers’ Bureau presentation in your community, email email@example.com or call 617-367-6447.
Kirstie Moreno is one of two AmeriCorps VISTAs coordinating the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau at the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. Her responsibilities include facilitating presentations and working closely with the speakers. A recent Wellesley College alum, Kirstie is particularly interested in advocacy for mentally ill persons recidivating through homelessness and institutional confinement.
National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day falls this year on Friday, December 21, the shortest day—and longest night—of the year. Each year since 1990, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Consumer Advisory Board and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council have cosponsored this day “to bring attention to the tragedy of homelessness and to remember our homeless friends who have paid the ultimate price for our nation’s failure to end homelessness.”
In honor of this day, Ed from the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau has shared with us a reflection on one of his own friends who passed away while homeless.
On this Memorial Day for the Homeless, I’d like to write a few words about my friend, Jeff. Back in the day, he and I would meet on “Listerine Corner,” down by the Arch Street Church. He always looked like hell, but always had a smile and a joke. He hated shelters, lived on the street. Ate out of trash cans, and wore secondhand clothes. He rarely showered. No. His cleanliness was of the soul, and he clothed himself in kindness to his brothers and sisters in peril. Jeff never had much, but would always share. Didn’t have a thieving or violent bone in his body. I ran into Jeff two days before he was found dead at a shelter. Saw him at Haymarket Station, while waiting for a bus. I bought him coffee and a couple of donuts. He was mostly silent, unusual for him. I believe he knew he was about to leave us. He asked me to pray with him. I did. The last words he said to me were “God Bless You.”
In this post, Christina Smith, an AmeriCorps VISTA placed at the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (MHSA), reflects on her first few months as a Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau Coordinator and how her perspective on homelessness has been transformed.
Here at MHSA, I am helping promote awareness of the need for housing solutions to end homelessness through the Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau. Our speakers are formerly or currently homeless individuals who share their firsthand accounts of their experiences of homelessness with audiences across Massachusetts and New England. During these first few months of my service year, my perspectives and assumptions about homeless individuals’ experiences have already begun changing.
Before starting my year of AmeriCorps VISTA service, I had no prior in-depth experience or knowledge of the many invisible struggles homeless individuals face every day. Perhaps the most significant part of my first few months has been the opportunity to meet many of our speakers and listen to their stories at different presentations throughout Massachusetts. Through their stories, we come to further appreciate what many take for granted—a personal space with ownership of a door key.
I remember listening to Peter share his story of the day he got housed after spending several years in shelter at Father Bill’s & Mainspring. The big moment for him was not the fact that he was now permanently housed, but had his own key. That key to protect his belongings and personal space in which he could now welcome whoever he wanted—or not— was the significant milestone for him.
Hearing his story made me realize that too often privacy is taken for granted. I have always thought of homelessness as the loss of housing; the loss of a permanent physical structure, or shelter, if you will. But, homelessness is also the loss of privacy.
As I have come to realize, there are critical differences between shelter and housing. Shelter is exactly what it sounds like—a haven from the elements. Housing takes that a step further, focusing on the all-encompassing mental and physical needs of a person by providing a secure, private place in which to reside. Hearing Peter’s story, I will never be able to forget the difference between shelter and housing, fully appreciating and recognizing the necessity of that distinction.
To partner with the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau in bringing a presentation to your community, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christina Smith is one of the AmeriCorps VISTA Massachusetts Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau coordinators. She helps book presentations and manages the grassroots outreach and communications efforts towards homelessness advocacy solutions.
Previously a development intern at InterFaithFamily, Christina is excited to translate her past speaker agency experience at Monitor Talent into a nonprofit setting through this year of service, expanding her communications and outreach experience. Christina is a recent Wellesley College graduate hailing from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
MHSA held its ninth annual fundraising event, Home for Good: Solutions Start Here, on the evening of May 16 at the Omni Parker House Hotel’s Rooftop Ballroom. With more than 330 people in attendance, it was MHSA’s largest and most successful fundraising event to date.
The evening, chaired by Rick Heller of Legal Sea Foods, focused on its honorees: Philip W. Johnston of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, Pamela Feingold of Eastern Bank, and Mark Winkeller of Caritas Communities. Phil, Pam, and Mark were presented with awards for their innumerable contributions to the statewide effort to end homelessness.
“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to congratulate three individuals who have put such significant effort, throughout their careers, toward ending homelessness in the Commonwealth,” said MHSA President and Executive Director Joe Finn.
The above video about MHSA’s ongoing efforts to end homelessness was produced for the event by videographer Chris Goff. It features comments from two formerly homeless individuals who currently reside in a housing program operated through a partnership between MHSA and member agency Bay Cove Human Services.
MHSA wishes to say a hearty thank you to this year’s Raise the Roof sponsors — Eastern Bank and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts — and to all who came out on May 16 to show their support for the ongoing effort to bring our poorest neighbors home for good.
Click here to see the photo gallery!
The Massachusetts Senate Committee on Ways & Means released its Fiscal Year 2013 budget recommendations today. The Senate Budget allocates $1.4 million to the Home & Healthy for Good line item (7004-0104), instead of the $2.2 million funding level proposed by the Governor’s Budget.
Your support throughout this budget process has been critical, and our work is not yet over. Now is the time to voice to the Senate our commitment to ensuring that Massachusetts invests in what works – permanent supportive housing that ends the homelessness of our most vulnerable neighbors and saves the Commonwealth money in the process.
Take Action: Contact Your State Senator!
State Senator James B. Eldridge, Chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, has agreed to file an amendment in the Senate Budget to allocate $2.2 million to line item 7004-0104 for Home & Healthy for Good supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals.
Please take a moment to call your state senator and ask him or her to co-sponsor this important amendment. To find out who your senator is, click here or contact Caitlin Golden at email@example.com or 617-367-6447 ext. 28. When you speak with your senator, please ask him or her to call the office of Chairman James B. Eldridge at 617-722-1120 and sign on as a co-sponsor to this amendment. The proposed deadline for amendments is Friday at 5 pm, so it is important to take action now.
For more information about Home & Healthy for Good, click here.
Finally, please let us know that you were able to take action by contacting Caitlin Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-367-6447 ext. 28.
Thank you for your support at this critical time.
Mark Winkeller has been in the real estate business for more than 25 years and joined Caritas Communities, a nonprofit that provides men and women with permanent affordable housing, in 1997. Under Mark’s leadership, an aggressive acquisition program has transformed Caritas into the largest owner of Single Person Occupancy properties in Greater Boston. Caritas Communities has worked closely with MHSA for years; Caritas manages all of MHSA’s Home & Healthy for Good–Boston properties and is involved in the new Home Front program that provides housing to chronically homeless veterans in Greater Boston. Mark holds a PhD in Social Welfare Planning from Brandeis University’s Heller School.
1. Tell us about your connection to MHSA and the MHSA mission to end homelessness.
I met MHSA President and Executive Director Joe Finn years ago after I joined Caritas Communities. Joe was Executive Director of Father Bill’s Shelter at the time. Joe was very helpful with a project that Caritas was acquiring in Quincy Center in the face of some local opposition. Caritas had historically focused on housing the “working poor,” many of whom had been living in homeless shelters.
As I got to know Joe, his eloquence and deep commitment to the homeless resonated with both me and my Board of Directors. Four years ago, we were delighted at the opportunity to work directly with MHSA to provide housing for over 40 chronically homeless individuals.
We have learned a lot from Joe and the MHSA staff and are even more delighted to partner again in a program to provide housing for 15 homeless veterans.
2. What fuels your interest in ending homelessness?
My interest in homelessness is fueled by my academic background in social welfare planning, my work in the for-profit real estate industry and my 15 years of providing affordable housing at Caritas Communities.
To many people, homelessness is seen as some sort of conscious choice. To anyone who works with the homeless—especially in light of our weakened economy, with rising rents and static or declining wages—it is often a “choice” made by others, not by the homeless themselves. Rich or poor, single or divorced, physically ill or uninsured, challenged by substance abuse or mental health problems, we all share some risk of homelessness.
No one should be living in the street; it is a dangerous, life-threatening and unpleasant place to be. Even in our weakened economy, we have so much wealth that failing to end homelessness is simply unacceptable.
3. What connections do you see between the real estate business and the nonprofit sector?
The real estate business has been a strong supporter of nonprofit work, particularly supportive housing for both those with extremely low incomes and those who are homeless. Real estate executives as well as entire companies have donated money and volunteers to organizations such as Caritas Communities and MHSA.
Ending homelessness requires a combination of real estate expertise to successfully develop appropriate housing that is well-designed, well-located, well-run and affordable, as well as the capability to bring supportive services to the residents who need them.
4. What have been some of your biggest goals at Caritas Communities since you became executive director?
Since I was fortunate enough to be hired as Executive Director 15 years ago, my goals have been as follows: increase the number of individuals Caritas can house by dramatically increasing the number of properties we own and widening the geographic areas that we serve; enhance existing ties and create new relationships with public and private supporters of affordable housing; expand our abilities to provide housing for homeless individuals, including veterans; and form close relationships with agencies that provide the appropriate social service support for the residents that we house.
5. What does this award mean to you?
In my view, this is really an award earned by all of us at Caritas Communities, and is by no means one that any single person at Caritas earned.
This award means that the vision our founder P. Leo Corcoran had in 1985 rings true today. We, and others like us, need to step up, do the right thing and provide high quality housing and services to individuals who, for whatever reason, are unable to secure decent, safe and affordable housing.
We are delighted to be honored for our accomplishments. We are also humbled by the knowledge that much more needs to be done to finally put an end to homelessness.
MHSA will be honoring Mark Winkeller, as well as Philip W. Johnston of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation and Pamela Feingold of Eastern Bank, at Home for Good: Solutions Start Here on May 16. Home for Good, a cocktail reception and awards presentation with hearty hors d’oeuvres, is MHSA’s ninth annual fundraising event. Join us for this elegant event at the Omni Parker House Hotel from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm on May 16. To buy tickets, click here.