Faces of the Unknown, Part 3: Cambridge nonprofit provides homes to the homeless
Shimon is no one’s hero. Nervous by nature, he said most of the decisions he’s made, or failed to make, were rooted in fear.
But when he received keys for his apartment in Quincy, he finally felt calm.
“I knew this was the place for me,” he said.
Carved wooden animal figurines clutter a shelf in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment. Hanging on the walls are thank you notes from former students he taught at a Hebrew school in Boston along with the Serenity Prayer often quoted in Alcoholics Anonymous. Used furniture fills the space, which is clean and warm and welcoming.
Shimon moved into the apartment in 2007 after 11 years of living without a home. He was able to secure the spot through HomeStart Inc., a Cambridge-based nonprofit with a mission of ending homelessness through housing.
An Israeli immigrant, Shimon arrived in Boston one cold night in 1989 to attend Emerson College. At 33, he was looking for an escape, even if he was scared to death of living in a new place without speaking the language fluently.
His alcoholism was in full force at the time, he said, and he struggled to finish his degree.
“Everything was rough,” Shimon said. “By my nature, I’m very nervous, and at the time I was an active alcoholic. I was using alcohol to cover up the anxiety.”
In AA, Shimon said they call people like himself “soul suckers.” Shimon had a normal upbringing. His parents, although divorced, never abused him and were both present in his life. But, an uneasiness lives deep within his psyche, and Shimon said he was always looking for a way to get away from life.
“It’s a really viscous cycle. You get high and fill the emptiness, but then you have to come to reality,” Shimon said. “So, you do it again, and then when that’s not enough, you do more. We call that addiction. … These things fill you up, but it’s not what you call life.”
It wasn’t the alcohol that drove Shimon to the streets however. After graduating from Emerson, Shimon found work at a Hebrew school, where he still teaches today, and an apartment in Cambridge, which he shared with several other roommates.
He had gotten sober in 1995, and it was the first time he was living without the crutch of addiction. So, when his landlord raised the rent in 1996, and Shimon couldn’t afford to stay, the anxiety of finding a new apartment overwhelmed him. He looked and looked, but when it came time to leave, he still hadn’t found anything.
Shimon put his stuff into storage and showed up at the Salvation Army in Central Square. He thought he could stay there indefinitely as long as they had space, but didn’t know they only allow people to stay for four nights at a time.
At first, it wasn’t that bad. It was the summer, and Shimon found places outside to sleep. Then, the weather turned cold, and Shimon knew he needed to sleep inside somewhere. He let himself into a Harvard University building, found a storage closet to hide in, and waited for someone to lock the doors.
The first night was spent in terror. He was so certain someone would find him; he hardly slept.
Eventually, a social worker at Shelter Inc. in Cambridge helped him secure a room at the YMCA in Boston. It wasn’t much, but it was consistent, and Shimon got comfortable.
The building manager loved him, he said, because he kept the room clean and he stayed sober. He never caused problems, and when the governor or mayor came to see the rooms there, the building manager would ask Shimon to show his.
Shimon would still be there, he said, if it weren’t for a change in executive directors in 2006. When the new boss came in, she did a review of everyone’s papers. Shimon’s visa had expired, but the paperwork had never been updated to reflect that. When they asked for recertification, Shimon didn’t try to argue. He just left out of fear of being deported.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Shimon said. “To live for so many years undercover, you don’t feel free.”
In 20 years since its founding, HomeStart has housed more than 6,000 people, according to its annual report. It’s cheaper for state and federal governments to house people who are experiencing homelessness than to provide emergency shelters and services; but it’s cheaper still to prevent someone from losing his or her home, said HomeStart executive director, Linda Wood-Boyle. The organization started a three-year study in 2010 in partnership with the Boston Housing Authority and published their results earlier this year.
The report found that it costs the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) on average, $10,021 to evict a tenant from public housing. It costs HomeStart, on average, $1,570 to preserve that same tenancy at the BHA. Nearly all, or 97 percent of the 153 BHA tenancies preserved through HomeStart, remained housed one year later.
By comparison, it costs roughly $30,000 a year to house someone in an emergency shelter, the report found, and while someone is in an emergency shelter, they tend to use up $9,464 more per year in state-supported services than a person who is housed. Last year, HomeStart’s average rental assistance for its Prevention Program was just $726, according to the report. Wood-Boyle said the BHA saw the numbers and immediately asked to partner with the program to sustain it going forward.
Cambridge also contracts with HomeStart for prevention and rapid re-housing services. In fiscal 2012, the city received $224,074 from the federal government under its Emergency Solutions Grant program. Of that, just under half, or $100,775, went to prevention and rapid re-housing services, while another $123,299 went to shelters, drop-in centers and outreach.
In comparison, the city received over $3.8 million for housing programs.
What’s not included in the count however, are the mental and emotional costs that come with living without the security of a home.
The stigma can last for years, said Victor, a Peruvian immigrant who was also housed through HomeStart.
“It pretty much can destroy you if you don’t have a strong sense of self,” Victor said. “You feel defeated. You feel like a failure.”
For that reason, Victor rejects the label “homeless.”
“This is an experience that I’ve gone through,” Victor said. “This is not something that defines me.”