By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — During summer, the warm weather encourages those cocooned in their homes during the cold winter months to venture out, enjoy the brilliant sun and open up the windows to allow fresh air to permeate their home. Yet for some families, summer is just another season because homeless families don’t have windows to open, but Ed Allard, program director for Catholic Social Services’ Community Action for Better Housing, has been overseeing numerous projects in the diocese to try and give the homeless a home so that they can enjoy that window-opening moment.
The Oscar Romero House on Allen Street in New Bedford just opened last year and “it’s been great and we have great tenants,” said Allard of the eight units that came fully-applianced and offered a community space and laundry facilities. “It’s fully occupied. All the people who came into the Romero House were considered homeless, so obviously that moved them from a bad situation into a great situation. We have mothers with children, couples and single people living there; it’s a mix of households.”
The units range from studio apartments, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, including the two handicap units on the first floor. When someone goes from living either on the streets, couch-jumping with friends, or trying to land a bed in a shelter, coming to live in a home and having a stable place to live can change a person or family’s life dramatically.
“We took one elderly tenant who was living in an unbelievably bad situation and had nowhere to go, and came [to the Romero house],” said Allard. “The feedback has been terrific. The condition of the housing is such that when someone moves into our housing after we do it, it’s like nothing they’ve ever lived in. We do quality work and the place looks like a hotel.”
The same ideal holds true at the St. Dominic Apartments in Fall River. A four-year project, the apartments were created during a rehab of St. Anne’s Priory residence in Fall River. The 18 one-bedroom apartments may have retained the unique architectural features of the gothic building, but Allard made sure that every apartments was handicap accessible; “The elders who have moved into St. Dominic’s really like the fact that they’re living in a safe, clean and stable environment,” said Allard. “They’re living with others, so there’s a sense of community there, which is good for them. When you get to that age, it’s good to have company and to hang out with.”
Places like St. Dominic Apartments are a godsend for elderly who may not have children living close by, or are not necessarily close with their children, said Allard. Living in a community-type based arrangement encourages neighbors to connect with each other, creating a special closeness not found when the elderly are living alone.
“They can build relationships with the other tenants and that’s happened,” said Allard.
There are many projects in various stages currently underway. The Sister Rose House, a sober men’s shelter, is waiting for the final financing to come through for its move from downtown New Bedford to the former St. Hedwig’s Parish on Division Street, where it will be able to offer beds to women for the first time in the city. The plan includes expanded living space for guests beyond a bed in a cubicle, a patio, raised beds for a community garden, job-training certificate program and GED/ELL classes.
Allard said Arlene McNamee, executive director of Catholic Social Services, has been extremely successful in raising private funds for the Sister Rose House “from individuals, corporations, hospitals and banks. They’ve all stepped up. I’ve been doing this work for 35 years, and I’ve never seen this kind of response to a project.”
Nearly $700,000 has been raised, with a huge boost from a meeting with the Fishermen’s Association; “Arlene has gone in and talked, and from that some fishermen have stepped up,” said Allard. “One fisherman wrote a check for $50,000 on the spot.”
“I think what’s motivating them is they see the need for the shelter,” continued Allard. “Like in the case of the fishermen, some fishermen are struggling. Also, a lot of them are members of the Church and they’re doing their charitable part. Others know it because of the reputation of CABH and the work we’ve done in the community, and they put that trust in us.”
Allard said he recently accompanied Rep. Joe Kennedy in a walk-through of a newly-completed veteran housing project in Fall River on Eastern Avenue. The six units — two are handicap accessible — will be rented out to veterans through a lottery process; “With the construction just completed,” said Allard, “we’re hoping to have people starting to move in there sometime in September.”
CABH also works on rehabbing homes and selling them to low-income, first-time homebuyers. Currently a property on Leland Street in New Bedford was redone; the two-family home is in a “great location on a dead end street, next to the schools and the highway; on the next street over there’s a cul-de-sac of newly-built homes. It sits on a third of an acre. It had been foreclosed on and we went in there and purchased it, and did a complete rehab. This place looks beautiful,” said Allard, adding that the new owner, who was chosen through a lottery-system from those who qualified, would be taking possession soon.
There are so many misunderstandings about those who are homeless, said Allard, and there is an idea that individuals become homeless “through their own fault,” he said, “that if they really wanted to do something, they wouldn’t be homeless. I think that’s an easy way out. People can get themselves off the hook by saying that, putting the onus on the individual, then no one has to think a lot about the issues over why a person would become homeless — until it strikes home, then it becomes more real.”
There is sometimes a fear born from those misconceptions, so in the case of the Sister Rose House and its community garden, the garden will create a link with the guests from the shelter to the neighbors; “They can get to know each other, see each other and trust each other,” said Allard. “We try to do that with all our projects, to get the tenants involved in the neighborhood community.”
Seeing each job to its completion, Allard said he enjoys seeing each project give back to the community in two ways; one by helping homeless families and individuals, and the other is sprucing up a neighborhood by rehabbing a blighted property.
“Personally, this is one of the best things I like about my job,” he said. “There aren’t that many jobs that you can say, ‘This is what we did.’ In my job, I can do that. We can take a dilapidated building and turn it around into a shining star, look at it and know that it’s going to be well-maintained by CSS and the tenants living there will be treated with respect.”