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Dear State And Federal Representatives: A Hotel Room Is Not A Home

Ben Jackson: "As a society, we must fight for people like me and like my daughter." (Nikolai Vassiliev/flickr) MoreCloseclosemore
Ben Jackson: "As a society, we must fight for people like me and like my daughter." (Nikolai Vassiliev/flickr)

I am the single father of a disabled teenager, and I am newly homeless.

On the surface of things, I am the last person one would expect to find in these circumstances, and it is because of huge failings in both our social safety nets and in our courts that I find myself in my current dilemma — living in a local hotel while struggling to find an understanding landlord.

My daughter is the coolest 13-year-old-girl in the history of 13-year-old-girls. Emma is the greatest joy of my life. She also happens to have been born with a rare cancer that kept her in the hospital for her first year, and that left her with lifelong physical disabilities. She has no voice. She has a tracheotomy. She has difficulty swallowing, and she has been continually susceptible to recurrent pneumonias.

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In October of last year, her health began to deteriorate. I lost my job because of the time I had to miss to care for her. In April, she was diagnosed with another rare, sometimes fatal disease: plastic bronchitis. Lymphatic fluid builds in her lungs, creating rubbery imprints of her airways that can starve her of oxygen if she doesn’t cough them out, and block her airway if she does. She requires two hours daily of nebulizers, inhalers and a chest physiotherapy vest that literally shakes these plugs loose. She has since been hospitalized a dozen times — nearly every other week since January — preventing me from working. It is here that our social safety net fell apart.

I am the single father of a disabled teenager, and I am newly homeless.

There is no easily located, browsed or applied-for set of benefits for the parents of disabled children who lose their income because of their child’s disability. In fact, there are very few benefits available at all, through the government, for which I will qualify. If I were disabled, I would qualify. If my daughter were an adult or independent, she would qualify. But because I am a caretaker and not a disabled person myself, there is an unscalable bureaucratic wall in between needed benefits and me.

Which leads me to the second, enormous failing of the commonwealth: our courts. On June 5, I happened to find on my front door an eviction notice. I had missed court dates because the papers were sent to the wrong address. I was evicted by default, without the opportunity to plead my case.

The author and his daughter, Emma, during one of her many stays at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2015. (Ben Jackson/Courtesy)
The author and his daughter, Emma, during one of her many stays at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2015. (Ben Jackson/Courtesy)

After filing an emergency motion to postpone the eviction, I went before the court and said, "If you do not grant me more time to resolve my situation or find new lodging, my disabled daughter and I will be homeless." Essentially, the answer was, "too bad." At no point in the process was there intervention. There was no direction toward resources that might have prevented my current homelessness. There was no acknowledgement that there even were resources or that there was any way to stave off the eviction pending an appeal. There was simply, "Next case."

In many ways, I am lucky. I have a large and generous social network. Through a GoFundMe page, these amazing people have donated enough to allow us to weather the immediate crisis. Many are not so fortunate.

We live in one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. This cannot happen here. We cannot be the nation that allows children and families to go homeless and destitute because we lack adequate resources. We always have sufficient funds for the National Guard. There doesn't seem to be any problem waiving parking tickets for the Boston City Council. Speen Street by the Natick Mall is torn up and repaved every year simply to allow for slightly less bumpy access to merchandise come winter, and giant corporations receive tax breaks left and right. The wealthiest residents pay the least of their income to the state due to regressive sales and meals taxes, along with easy income tax dodges, while those of us struggling at the bottom continue to struggle for their benefit.

We cannot be the nation that allows children and families to go homeless and destitute because we lack adequate resources.

It’s time for our Legislature to pass a bill requiring courts to hold indigence hearings in all eviction cases — especially those pertaining to disabled residents of the commonwealth — prior to any other eviction action. In addition, prior to any eviction actions, the courts must be compelled both to provide mediation and direct landlords and tenants to intervention services that may prevent the need for eviction or assist in finding new housing if eviction is warranted.

As a society, we must fight for people like me and like my daughter. The sole function of government is to provide for the welfare of its citizenry, and I would argue that before international trade missions are undertaken by the governor, or corporate tax loopholes are written into law, we must ensure the most vulnerable among us are protected.

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Ben Jackson Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Ben Jackson is a writer.

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