part one of a two part profile
“I didn’t know anything about homelessness,” said Mark Alston-Follansbee, Executive Director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition. We were sitting in his office, a small but cozy space in the basement of 1 Davis Square, and a welcome refuge from the downpour outside.
“I landed in Boston for all the wrong reasons in 1985,” he continued. “I had been working in San Francisco, and then I had two major deaths – my best friend and my grandfather died on the same day.” Alston-Follansbee paused, a palpable catch in his voice.
“Anyway, back at work after the funerals someone said something to me, I don’t even remember what, and that was it. I just quit and walked out. “
“That was pretty much my pattern,” he added.
Kicked out of college in 1966, Alston-Follansbee was drafted and sent to Vietnam. For years afterwards he struggled with the effects of his experiences there, and the memories of what he had seen and been through. Two decades later, he recognized something in the men he was encountering on the streets of Boston, and he started talking to them.
“They were vets,” he said. “A few from World War Two or Korea, but mostly Vietnam – guys my age. It was fairly clear that if I had not had the help that I got from my family and friends, I would have been in the same kind of condition they were in, because I was messed up pretty good for 20 years after Vietnam. So I got really angry that they were homeless because they were traumatized by the war.”
Alston-Follansbee had been raised with an idea of service. “I grew up in Minnesota, where we had Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey always said the responsibility of government is to help people who can’t help themselves. He always talked about the elderly, the disabled, and children.”
“I looked around for a place to volunteer. Three places said they didn’t need anybody,” he said, shaking his head and scoffing at the memory.
“Then I saw an ad from the city of Cambridge. This was the summer of ’86 and they had just hired a director of homeless services, and he didn’t have anyone working with him. “
Alston-Follansbee started spending one day a week researching programs that might help the homeless. Within nine months he was hired full time, initially as the receptionist. Two months later he was taking over programs. The following year, he started working at Shelter, Inc. (recently renamed Heading Home) where he ran a shelter, day programs, transitional counseling, and permanent housing initiatives. In time, he found himself wanting a new challenge.
“I had never wanted to be an Executive Director,” he said. “It seemed like it was impossible to have any work/life balance, and I couldn’t see why anyone would want to do that.” But, when the directorship opened up at the Somerville Homeless Coalition in 2000, he felt ready.
Formed in 1985, the coalition opened the first shelter for the homeless in Somerville in 1986. With only a staff of two, much of the work was done by volunteers. From the founding, many of these volunteers have been Tufts students, who acted as night-watchers at the shelter and salvaged food from the dining halls. When Alston-Follansbee came on as executive director, the coalition had added a family shelter and food pantries. He has since helped to create six permanent housing programs and a prevention program, and increased the work being done on food insecurity, improving the efficacy of the pantries.
|Holly Stewart, A11, is one of the many Tufts students who has partnered with the Somerville Homeless Coalition. As a student and TA in the course Homelessness and Health, Holly took on a range of research, advocacy and service roles. Read more about Holly’s work.|
This last initiative grew out of Tisch College’s Project PERIS (Partnering for Economic Recovery Impact through Service). A three-year service learning effort, Project PERIS developed a model for university-community partnerships while responding to economic needs in Somerville. Students in the School of Arts and Sciences course Homelessness and Health, working closely with the Somerville Homeless Coalition, assessed existing programs, resources, and organizations, and identified gaps. Each new semester of the course built upon the previous, with students in the Tisch College Active Citizen Summer program doing hands-on work between semesters. Over the course of the project, the collaboration produced a detailed map of available resources, started a community action board of service providers, and carried out multiple in-depth surveys of hundreds of low-income individuals.
One need identified through the process was for more fresh vegetables – and especially refrigeration space to store fresh vegetables. Students helped the Somerville Homeless Coalition raise funds for a walk-in refrigerator to install at the project SOUP food pantry. This effort was recently completed with a donation from the course Experimenting with Philanthropy.
“It blew my mind,” Alston-Follansbee said of the gift. “It really allows us to get to the point where we can get the freezer/cooler combo built this summer, which will make a huge difference in what we can do.”
The project comes at a time of increasing demand. “It’s really daunting. We don’t have enough resources to help all the people who are coming in asking us for help now. The government is taking money away from programs that support people. So here we are, not having the resources we need, and more is being asked of us.”
“One of the terrible things about this recession is that it’s pushed more people into poverty, and more people into deep poverty. The federal poverty level is a flat rate – it’s not adjusted based on where you live. For a family of four it’s a little over $23,000 a year, whether you’re in Boston or someplace farther out with a much lower cost of living. There are over 49 million people in the U.S. living in poverty, and what the recession did was push the number of people in deep poverty from about 16 million to 25 million. So, almost half the people living in poverty are living on half the federal poverty level, or about $11,000 a year. Imagine you’re in Boston, you’ve got a family of four, and you’re trying to live on $11,000 a year.”
“It always amazes me that more people aren’t homeless. Of the 20 million people in the country living in deep poverty, only about 3.5 million people over the course of a year become homeless, and most people are homeless just for a short period of time.”
Read part two of Ounces of Prevention, which describes the increasing emphasis on preventing homelessness, the challenges the organization faces, and some of the roles played by Tufts students.
Originally published August 2012