Every day, Tufts students benefit from the experience and engagement of community partners,
such as Mark Alston-Follansbee at the Somerville Homeless Coalition
part two of a two part profile
read part one
The sharp increase in need has led the Somerville Homeless Coalition to develop new strategies, placing more emphasis on preventing homelessness before it occurs.
“It costs the state about $36,000 a year to put a family in a family shelter,” said Alston-Follansbee. “The SHC has about 125 families and individuals in permanent housing that we support, and the cost for a family in one of our apartments is a little under $20,000 per year. The average cost last year to prevent a family from becoming homeless was $833.”
Moving to intervene before homelessness occurs has pushed the coalition to rethink some of the ways it approaches its work. “The prevention program recognizes that we all have crisis in our lives. Most of us have some resources – we have some money in the bank, or some friends or family who can bail us out. These folks often don’t have any of that, they’ve burned all their bridges.”
Living with no cushion, small problems can become major calamities. “If your car breaks down and you can’t go to work, and if you don’t go to work you don’t get a paycheck, and if you don’t get a paycheck you can’t pay your rent, you could become homeless. So we’ll fix the car,” said Alston-Follansbee.
“We had a family in Somerville a few months ago, a mother and three kids, who were burned out of their house,” he said. “The Red Cross put them up in a motel for two nights, and that’s it, then they called us. It took us two weeks to find them another apartment. We got local banks to cover the cost of the motel for the rest of the two weeks. They had Section 8, the federal housing subsidy, which allowed them to pay the rent in the new apartment that we helped them find. We got them donated furniture. But, because of the bedbug issue, you can’t get used beds. So we used the money we get, some from the United Way, some from the city, to buy them four beds. That’s all they needed to move into this new apartment. We’ll do whatever it takes to keep people housed.”
A driving force has been expanding research, demonstrating the dramatic effects of even brief periods of homelessness, especially on children. “We know that the average child who becomes homeless is going to be in at least two shelters in the course of a year,” said Alston-Follansbee. “We know that every time they change school systems they lose about four months of their education. We know about higher incidence of asthma and the other terrible physical effects. It’s all about stress. If there’s a common denomination among homeless people, it’s people who have already been traumatized and then the shelter system is adding another layer of trauma onto them. ”
Despite the clear advantages, financing and fundraising remain a challenge. “We get that money, and it just goes out, it’s gone, because there’s such demand for it – a lot of what we’re doing is trying to figure out how we can do much more. Two years ago we prevented 140 families from becoming homeless. Last year it was 225 families. We were able to do that because we got some new money in. But we’ve grown that prevention program without really having the infrastructure, the staff capacity, to manage the load. Our big challenge right now is raising more money so that we’ve got the people power to do the work. We’re not the kind of place to just write a check, we’re going to take some time and really understand what the problems are, and give some ideas about how to not get in the same situation in the future. But all of that is work, and it’s part of our philosophy of what we do with people, to help them make that change.”
One financial bright spot has been the Leonard Carmichael Society’s annual “Faculty Waits on You Dinner & Auction,” which over time has raised more than $100,000 for the coalition.
While a focus on prevention helps individuals today, larger issues like the housing supply and cost of new housing make it difficult to address long-term homelessness. “Unfortunately, affordable housing is very expensive to build, for lots of reasons,” said Alston-Follansbee. “If you look at how much it costs just to create a simple unit of housing in Massachusetts, because of the building laws, because of the labor costs, because of the cost of land – Somerville doesn’t have vacant land, it’s the most densely populated city in New England. So we know it’s very expensive. But the fact is, the federal government, Democrats and Republicans, have cut 40 billion dollars of support for poor people’s housing, and there’s a direct correlation between the amount of money the federal government has cut and the numbers of people who are homeless.”
Fully aware of these challenges, Alston-Follansbee is undaunted. “These kinds of issues, I’m convinced, can be solved, if we would put our minds to solving them – right now our priorities are very different from addressing things like hunger and homelessness. I think education is a big part of it, and that’s the reason I always feel fortunate to be able to talk to students. Tufts has got this wonderful culture of trying to prepare people to be active citizens when they leave the university. And I think if you do stay engaged in your community, you’re going to have to look as some of these social problems. Hopefully these are going to be the leaders of the future and they’ll want to take some of them on.”
“It’s going to take us going back to feeling like we have some responsibility for each other,” he continued. “I can’t see how people think that they’re going to be okay just taking care of themselves, and not taking care of this person who is suffering right next to them. “
There are places Alston-Follansbee encounters this sense of responsibility on a regular basis. “I see it in the students who want to work with us,” he observed. “They’re young and idealistic, and that’s why it’s so important to talk to them. I’m still idealistic even though I’m old – I think it’s the only way you can stay alive in this kind of a world.”
Currently, two Tufts students, Joshua Malkin, A13, and Kayley Pettoruto, A12, are working with the coalition as Tisch Active Citizenship Summer Fellows. Malkin, a part of the Project PERIS team that helped identify the need for the walk-in refrigerator at Project SOUP, is focused on getting it permitted and constructed. Pettoruto is continuing outreach to immigrant communities, and among Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole speakers. Over the coming academic year, two Tisch Scholars will develop educational programs – “Homelessness 101” – for use in public elementary, middle, and high schools.
Alston-Follansbee knows that when they want to, individuals can come together to build big changes. “We’ve lost something as a society over the last couple of generations, there’s been so much emphasis on what can I get for myself, as opposed to how can I be a part of my community, my country, this world. Smart people have figured out how to solve this thing, so really the question is, what are we going to do about it, how are we going to participate?”
Read part one of this two part profile