SALISBURY, Mass. — In an East Coast beach town this time of year, you’re struck by what you feel and by what’s missing.
Here on the oceanfront in Salisbury, on Massachusetts’ far North Shore, you feel the cold breeze and the moist air off the ocean. It bites right through your clothes.
What’s missing are the throngs of people who’ll pack this place in a couple of months. But right now, most of the restaurants and the tourist shops are closed.
Still, the offseason does attract many other people who come here to stay for months — not on vacation, but out of necessity.
Jean — who we met in town at the Pettengill House, a social service agency that covers 10 local communities — has been homeless three times. In order to protect her and her two young children, she’s asked we use her middle name.
“It’s a little depressing,” she explains. “It’s put a lot of emotional strain on me — trying to not show my kids that it’s upsetting me so that they’re not upset. I’m not used to living in a hotel like that. It makes life harder.”
Notice she says hotel.
Jean tells us how she found herself, 27 years old with a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, living in a Salisbury hotel, or motel, since January.
Unreliable transportation, past evictions and an abusive relationship left her looking for a temporary solution to homelessness. She found it in Salisbury.
“These are the cheapest hotels that they have,” Jean says. “I need to make sure that I have an every-week guarantee of the same place so we’re not bouncing from hotel to hotel.”
Jean pays the bills working long hours as a personal care attendant for an elderly couple. Her rent is $251 a week for one room.
A ‘Transient Population’
“Salisbury is a seaside community where we have a lot of transient population,” explains Ann Champagne, a retired Salisbury Police Department detective and a case worker at the Pettengill House.
“What I mean by that is winter seasonal rentals — they may be cottages, they may be motels, they may be apartments — are rented only for the season and the people have to be out come April, so they’re rented for the winter,” Champagne says.
That transient population pulses in and out of beachfront communities all along the Massachusetts coast during the summer months, when Salisbury’s year-round population of about 8,000 swells to nearly three times that.
“The warmer months it’s more of a vacation spot,” explains James Leavitt, a Salisbury police officer. “Where the winter, I would say, is more of, maybe people down on their luck that need a place … coming here for need because of the low cost of apartments and rentals down here in the winter.”
Officer Leavitt is a nine-year veteran of the Salisbury Police Department. He primarily handles domestic dispute cases; the number of which he says remains relatively consistent year-round, even though the winter population is three times less than the summer population.
Leavitt speaks with us in the 1930s-era police station in a windowless, multipurpose room that houses the department refrigerator and the 911 computer system. We’re joined by Det. Sgt. Anthony King.
“There’s an opportunity here in the wintertime, I think,” King explains. “Not that there isn’t in the summertime, but it’s a different type of opportunity.”
When he says “opportunity,” King is talking about the opportunity for crime. Streets in winter are largely deserted and empty summer houses can be targets for some people who might be criminally-minded.
Salisbury Police figures show burglary and breaking and entering charges spiked in the offseason last year — October through March — outpacing charges in the summer, when the population, you’ll remember, nearly triples.
Crime is a worry for Jean, living in the motel with her two kids.
“I don’t feel safe,” she says. “I know what’s rolling around down there. I sleep with both locks on the door and I sleep closest to the door.
“I have recently acquired a tiny little pocket knife because it makes me feel safe. I mean, I don’t have a lot of expensive stuff, but I still have my kids there and that’s the biggest issue, their safety.”
Educating Homeless Kids
The lack of space in that one motel room is also an issue, and it’s taking a toll on her children.
“School wise, my son is starting to go a little bit in rewind,” Jean says. “His reading is not as good as it could be. He was doing really good. Behavioral wise, they’re acting out a lot more now.”
Jean’s son began the academic year in Bradford Public Schools, about 30 minutes from Salisbury. That’s where they were living before moving to the motel in Salisbury.
Under a federal law that mandates school district support of homeless students, Jean had the right to choose where she wanted her son to finish out the school year. So her son still attends school in Bradford, picked up every morning in a cab paid for by the school district.
“It’s been a little difficult for him because he leaves earlier than all the rest of the kids,” Jean says. “They all wonder why he gets to walk around the school with a booster seat. Some days he doesn’t even want to go to school. Some days he’s begging me to find him a different ride because he doesn’t want to take a cab because it’s embarrassing for him.”
Embarrassing for the boy and challenging for the towns. The numbers fluctuate, but on average, almost one in six of the roughly 550 children in Salisbury Elementary School is experiencing homelessness.
Though the student-teacher ratio in Salisbury is better than the state average, the grade school’s MCAS scores in English, math and science have been below the state average the last three years.
“We could have a student the day before MCAS show up, take MCAS and it counts on Salisbury’s report card. And then leave the next week,” explains Jim Montanari, whose been principal of Salisbury Elementary for nine years.
Montanari’s office is dominated by a wall of pictures of his own kids and inspirational learning material for his students. He says among kids who live in town year-round, scores are improving. But it’s difficult when you’re teaching children who are there for just part of the year.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s not an excuse, and we have to make adjustments,” he says. “Here at Salisbury Elementary, we do it differently. Students understand, they feel safe and they’re happy. As a school we can’t control their home life and so forth. We do have control when the students are here.”
Meantime, Jean may have to move out of her Beach Road motel in Salisbury. With the winter rental season almost over, her weekly rent is about to rise.
“Once April hits, they’re going to spike the rent up for that hotel room from $250 to $400 and I can’t afford that,” she says. “That’ll take every single penny that I make. I’ll have nothing for food, nothing for gas, nothing for my car. That makes me nervous.”
If Jean can’t find an affordable apartment — and so far she’s had no success — she and her kids are likely to be homeless again.