By Nahani Meuse
My heart hurts. We, as a community, as a city, as a people, must do better. If I were to find a homeless puppy on the side of the road, I could make one phone call and that living soul wouldbe safe. In under an hour, I could secure shelter, food, medical care and advocacy for that dog. However, if that puppy were not a puppy, and was instead a human being, I couldn’t guarantee assistance. It would be a hit or miss,uphill battle to secure safety for that person.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I am grateful that homeless animals have safe options. I am a huge animal advocate, and actually run a dog rescue in my “free time.” My heartbreak is from knowing that even in the 2 nd largest city in
all of New England, I can not always provide a safe option for a homeless human being. I’ve worked in this city in homeless services for well over a decade, I’ve operated shelters, I’ve developed outreach programs to reach those on the street. We have countless service providers, beating the pavement each day to offer advocacy to the people who’ve long ago given up on receiving any true help, and resigned themselves to a life on the street, on the fringes. Marginalized, stigmatized and victimized again and again.
Worcester is the second largest city in the entire region, not just the state, but in all of New England. Homelessness is at epidemic levels and has been for years, with no hint of declining. Although people become homeless in any number of cities and towns, many flock to city centers due to the resources available (public transportation, detoxfacilities, shelters, etc). In Worcester, we have one year round shelter built for less that 60 people and a handful of population specific shelters that hold far less, for veterans, or women fleeing exploitation andabuse. Routinely every one of these shelters is at capacity; despite the literally hundreds of people sleeping unsheltered on the streets.
Often times people would rather take their chances sleeping on
the streets than to enter the one year round shelter option in the city.
The horrific reports of abuse, theft, violence, exploitation, etc have been public knowledge for years, yet no other option is put forth. Every social worker in the city has heard stomach turning details of people’s experiences in that shelter; many have witnessed it first hand and most have reported these incidents, yet no change occurs. The lack of transparency and accountability in shelter services in Worcester has only fueled the abuses that have existed since the PIP.
Staff at these facilities were given the green light to tell any guest to leave for nearly any reason, and I’ve seen them do it hundreds of times. If an individual overdosed and wouldn’t go to detox,
they were thrown on the street. If an elderly individual had incontinence issues, rather than get them medical hygiene products, they were told to pack their things and leave the shelter and it was justified because “they need a higher level of care.” If an individual suffering from mental illness talks to themselves,
they were told to leave shelter for “bothering others.”
If a staff member didn’t like the individual, or was having a bad
day they would tell people to leave the shelter. If two individuals
hugged or exchanged a handshake, they were immediately accused of “selling drugs” and kicked out of shelter. At one point, the banned list for the city shelter was over 100 individuals! In 2016, with another brutal New England winter fast approaching, our city worked hand in hand with non-profit organizations and the faith-based community to create an emergency winter overflow shelter. The idea was that when the year-round shelter was full, there would be a safe place for people to seek refuge from the storms, the cold, the streets. Yet every spring the people who had accessed the winter shelter were again put on the streetsuntil the following winter. The all-volunteer shelter became
known as “Hotel Grace” and year after year would open the doors to provide safety for 60 people from the frigid winter. It operated on Temple Street each winter for several years prior to relocating to Vernon Street during COVID.
Unfortunately, what had began as a beautiful, humane option for winter
shelter turned into yet another organization that was exploiting
and abusing the very vulnerable population it was supposed to
serve.The folks surviving and sleeping unsheltered have a host of concerns as well. The unkind elements are certainly not
the only fear these people face. There is risk of assault, overdose, being robbed of what little they have, being raped, infections, exacerbated wounds due to lack of hygiene, no place to toilet or bathe, etc. Some say homelessness has been criminalized and I understand that argument. People are routinely encountered by police who tell them they must move from where they are sitting or sleeping, or risk arrest because they are “loitering” or “trespassing.” We’ve seen the state come through encampments with bulldozers destroying everything in their path. Others have had their tents literally sliced with knives by the police.
A handful of us working in the field have become discouraged that every year at winter shelter we would see the exact same faces again and again, year after year. While they had a safe place to escape the cold, they received no real resources to exit homelessness.
We began to dream of a better
option. We spoke of operating a shelter without barriers. We
envisioned a shelter that didn’t simply provide a bed for the
night and food. We wanted to bring social workers, case managers, recovery coaches, religious supports, housing navigators, crisis interventionists, clinicians, physicians and treatment providers in to the shelter. We wanted to remove the barriers of appointments, transportation, stigma, etc and bring the help to the people who needed it in the moment. We wanted to dismantle the status quo, punitive system that exists in shelters … We all continued to work within the parameters that the current system had set for us, while dreaming of something so much better and doing everything we could in ourspare time to see that dream come to fruition.
Since 2016, the City of Worcester has taken a reactive approach to emergency shelter. Each year come mid-autumn, we panic and worry about where winter shelter will be this year, when it can open, where people should seek safety once the overflow is full, etc. In these same 7 years, Worcester has seen tremendous growth and improvement. There are numerous brand new housing developments but very few of them are affordable. Thereis a huge ball park down in Kelley Square. There are new shops, restaurants, businesses of all sorts. Yet in our thriving city, our most vulnerable still have no home. The closing of winter shelter is an entirely different nightmare. Stress, anxiety, emotion, hopelessness, defeat etched into the faces of the men and women as they pack their few belongings into their bags with nowhere to go, and uncertainty of what the future holds. It is truly inhumane to offer people the safety of shelter and then to throw them back to the streets when spring arrives. Homelessness is not a winter only issue.
Each spring, following the closure of the winter shelter, we see an uptick in untimely deaths of those who’d stayed the previous winter at
shelter. It is incredibly heartbreaking to think that people are literally dying on the street – alone – because they have no safe, humane, year-round option for shelter, services and care.
This winter, we were able to do something different. We were again constrained by the winter only timeline, however, we were allowed to bring all of the resources to the guests at the shelter to make true, lasting progressfor and with them. We obtained ID’s, birth certificates and social security cards. We helped numerous folks file employment applications and obtain jobs. We applied for Mass Health, SNAP and GA benefits. We connected veterans to the VA and to Veteran’s Inc. We helped young adults enroll in college courses.
We assisted refugees in navigating the tumultuous immigration process. We had physicians and nurse practitioners providing healthcare weekly. We has substance use providers providing medicated assisted treatment at the shelter every day. We had staff dedicated to conducting housing search and identifying units available for guests who couldn’t find a rental unit.
Staff were dedicated to providing our guests the services they needed to successfully exit homelessness and itpaid off!Slowly but surely, as the winter progressed, we were seeing phenomenal results. Each week we would be saying“So long and good luck” to a handful of guests as they packed their belongings to move into their own homes. Each week we would escort a guest to pick out furnishings for a home they never dreamed would be a reality. And each week as we sent one guest to a home of their own, there was another individual waiting at the door for a chance to enter our shelter and work with the resources available to find their way to exit homelessness.
The work was exhausting, the
hours were long and the stories were truly heart shattering. Yet day after day, ourdedicated team of staff showed up to offer assistance to our neighbors who needed us the most. It wasn’t easy, but nothing worth attaining ever is. Even
on our worst days, I can confidently say that regardless of the guest, theirbarriers or their disposition, our guests were treated with the dignity, compassion, respect and decency they deserved. Confrontation occurred, untreated or
under treated mental health issues
flared, personalities clashed, and yet we remained the calm in the middle of that storm. We showed our guests, many of whom were anxious due to past abuses by other service providers, that they were safe here. We offered any resource our guests were willing to accept. Most did take advantage of several resources we made available, but some did not and chose to only sleep here and that is ok too. Hopefully, by making the offer of assistance but allowing the
individual to choose and respecting that choice, we built trust.Perhaps a guest wasn’t ready for housing this winter, but they know when
they are that they have advocates here that will work to assist them.
Many guests struggling with substance use disorder weren’t ready for treatment, but they knew we offered resources free of judgement, so they were able to be brutally honest without fear of reprisal. Feedback from our guests was taken very seriously and mattered to us, because we wanted to build and improve in any way that positively impacted our guests.
I am so incredibly proud of what we
accomplished this winter at Sowing Seeds of Hope at Bethlehem Hall.
I am amazed at the dedication I saw day in and day out from our staff, our volunteers and this amazing organization we partnered with. I am honored to have led this team and I look forward to working together with each one of you in the future, as we all continue to work to serve the homeless population.
If we all continue to be the change
we want to see in this world, progress will be made. Continue to advocate for a safe, humane, resource-rich, year-round shelter option in Worcester. Continue to advocate for affordable housing, housing subsidies that don’t take 10 years to acquire, permanent supportive housing projects, support services for formerly chronically homeless individuals and families.
Call your Worcester city councilor, call Worcester’s city manager, call your congressman. Continue to be anbadvocate and an ally for those who still don’t have a place to call “home.”
The City was poised to convert the old St. Vincent’s Hospital nursing school on Vernon Hill into affordable housing for seniors. Our senior citizens are still waiting! There are so many projects for the homeless that the City of Worcester delays, staves off … until people forget. Please, STAY ON YOUR CITY COUNCILORS! MAKE SURE THEY DELIVER FOR OUR MOST VULNERABLE NEIGHBORS!
Together, we can move mountains.
Together, we made a huge difference this winter! Together, we will be the solution moving forward!
🏘️This article, written by Nahani Meuse, represents her opinions – not the agency she works for, Open Sky.🏘️