New homelessness initiatives struggling to take off

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By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

ATTLEBORO, Mass. — According to, the number of people experiencing homelessness is continuing to rise, with the latest 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report submitted to Congress seeing Massachusetts have the fourth highest increase in homelessness among all states between 2013-2014. As of March 3, there were approximately 4,500 families with children and pregnant women in Massachusetts’ Emergency Assistance shelter programs, with 1,419 of those families with children being sheltered in motels.

In Attleboro, a new outreach program from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Voice of the Poor Committee, is gearing up to create programs that will not just aid those families, but give them the tools to break out of the poverty they find themselves living in — though the program is off to a bumpy start.

Tom Dwyer, a member of St. Mary’s Parish in Mansfield, has been involved with St. Mary’s St. Vincent de Paul Society since the late 1990s. Back then getting involved with St. Vincent de Paul, said Dwyer, “was about helping the poor and marginalized in our society; do whatever we can to provide them with assistance. I’ve always been interested in social justice issues, and giving the poor the best opportunities we can in keeping with the social tradition of the Gospel.”

Through home visits, the society was able to address a variety of needs, from food to clothing to helping with rent or transportation. Inspired by the realization that the families would need more than a hand-out but a hand-up, the St. Vincent de Paul Society has been trying to move in a new direction focused on social justice, as well as charity: “Rather than providing just aid to marginalized individuals, we’ve been trying on a national basis, trying to focus on systemic change, be they political structures or system laws,” said Dwyer.

The system makes it tough for the marginalized to climb out of the cycle of poverty, said Dwyer, so five years ago, the St. Vincent de Paul Society launched the Social Justice Committee to raise awareness of the root causes of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, with Dwyer as the chairman for the committee.

“We’ve since expanded that, and now instead of just a social justice committee for St. Mary’s in Mansfield, we’re now the Voice of the Poor committee for social justice, and it involves all of the Attleboro area,” said Dwyer. “We’ve always been looking at ways to help the poor and one of the things we became aware of, as the St. Vincent de Paul committee, when you just give individuals direct aid, you’re not really helping them [create] a more sustainable environment. You’re giving them short-term assistance, and sometimes that assistance goes on for a while, but you’re not getting to the root causes.”

The Voice of the Poor committee focuses on looking at the causes, helping address the problems, raise awareness, and advocate for change in state and federal laws. The new committee expanded its reach to include members from other parishes, and as a result, “we experienced some new energy, a broader perspective, a greater reach and more resources for different issues,” said Dwyer.

The plight of the homeless living in motel rooms became a concentrated effort for the committee. Many of the homeless families are placed in motels throughout the state, where they reside for various lengths of time before finding permanent housing.

“These situations in these motels are really dire,” said Dwyer. “You’ve got families packed into a small motel room and living there for months, and in some cases more than a year. Two motels in the Attleboro area became recipients of these homeless families, one in North Attleboro and the other in Attleboro” and it wasn’t long until those families began to reach out for services, including those offered through the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Having visited the motel families, seen the living conditions they are in, and talking with the families, “I’m amazed at their resilience at having to survive day-to-day,” said Dwyer. “It is not a fun environment. Many are working hard just to survive, to get enough food for their children; it’s a very tough existence. They should not be considered lazy, many are discouraged and don’t see hope for the future.”

There is a difference between generational poverty and situational poverty, with many never being given opportunities and “that’s what we’re trying to provide for them; they’re good people,” said Dwyer. “They want to do better, they just don’t know how.”

At the end of March, there were 30 families, not evenly balanced between the two motels, with 32 school-age children and 21 pre-school children; a few adults were working, with most but not all families being led by a single parent.

As families in the motels used their services, the committee realized that once again it was a “band-aid” effort that would not result in any permanent solution, so the committee set about exploring new options. When this past fall Catholic Social Services took over the contract from the state to become the caseworkers for those families, a partnership was formed and new initiatives began to form. 

Working with the YMCA in Attleboro during this past February vacation week, 15-17 children of the motel families signed up for the opportunity to come to the YMCA and receive daycare. Transportation was offered and “we provided them a nice, one-week experience to do some things, otherwise they’d just be sitting in the motel,” said Dwyer.

Hoping to build from that, the committee tried to hold a “Listening Session,” where the adults on the following Sunday of that school vacation week would be given their own platform to address what kinds of help they felt they needed, such as childcare, transportation or employment training skills.

“Whatever it was, we wanted to talk and hear from them,” said Dwyer, and though roughly 10 adults signed up, only one individual showed up, even with transportation having already been arranged. 

“It’s not clear why the others didn’t show up. It is kind of problem for families like this,” said Dwyer. “They’re in tough shape. They’ve lost a lot of drive and initiative, so it’s hard for them to believe a better life is possible and to have them commit to fighting their way out of poverty. They’ve been pretty well beaten down.”

Undeterred, the committee tried again in April with a similar program, but this time they expanded their reach and had the Attleboro and Hockomock YMCA involved, and they combined daycare for the children with adults being required to attend a comprehensive weeklong education program.

“We worked with the Attleboro Literacy Center,” said Dwyer, “who enlisted a number of other community organizations to offer about 30 hours of programming and training — everything from working with computers, to a nutrition program that focused on doing nutritional meals with microwaves because that’s all they have available in motel rooms, job interviewing, preparing resumes, basic health for children; it was a quid pro quo, that if you wanted your child to participate, you had to participate.

“The idea was to spark some interest in adults in what might be possible. They were going to be exposed to the Career Counseling Center in Attleboro, what the Attleboro Public Library had to offer for resources, what Bristol Community College has as far as for adult educational programs — to give them an idea of what is possible.”

Transportation was lined up, non-profits and other organizations ready to go, but that Friday before the vacation week — though expectations were high as 14 children and eight adults seemed to have committed — the number of participants dropped “for reasons we are trying to work through” and the program was cancelled.

The committee will meet with Catholic Social Services to see what happened since CSS was handling the direct contacts with the families, “and we’re not giving up,” said Dwyer, “and will look for ways to resurrect the program because the same situation is coming up this summer. There’s no place for the kids to play at the motel; it’s a tough way to live, especially in a country like ours.”

The state got wind of the new initiative, and was observing to see if they could model programs after what Attleboro was trying to launch, said Dwyer, who added “it’s been a difficult process” and that no one was under the illusion that poverty would be solved in one week.

“We have to regroup and see why it fizzled at the last minute, and what can we do for the summer,” said Dwyer. “Is there a way to make this work? We’ve had a setback, but that doesn’t mean we’re defeated.”

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