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Advocates Wonder Why Merrimack Valley Homeless Can't Use Excess Columbia Gas Housing Options04:32
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FEMA trailers at the O’Connell South Common in Lawrence are being used as alternative housing for people who were affected by the gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
FEMA trailers at the O’Connell South Common in Lawrence are being used as alternative housing for people who were affected by the gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 1 year old.

On a chilly Wednesday night, when overnight temperatures will dip into the 30s, about 40 homeless people gather at a bus garage in Lawrence.

They gather for dinner, to socialize, to get case management or a haircut. Some sleep there. There's no protection from the cold but there is a bit of protection from the wind.

Dinner is served around 9 p.m. Before then, people lay out blankets where they plan to sleep until the buses come in the morning.

Ralph Francois comes every week.

"I just came to be around some good people, talk around some good people," Francois says. "Came to eat, crack a little jokes with my friends."

The gathering, which is put on by an organization called The Movement Family, ends at 11 p.m.

Michael Gorman, who started the organization, says he sees the homeless seeking refuge in abandoned taxis and under bridges around Lawrence.

"When you still see people outside here in the cold weather, it hurts the heart," he says.

Gorman says there's a reason for having the gathering at the bus station so late at night.

"We wanted to definitely make sure it was after the buses were running," he says. "And we studied what time people were going to sleep here, what time they were hanging out."

On this night, Wednesday regular Francois says he'll be sleeping in a car. He's tried shelters but hasn't had any luck.

"The last time I tried to get in there, they told me they didn't have no beds," he says. "People don't want to be out here at night."

But some in Lawrence say this shouldn't be happening. After last month's gas explosions, the utility Columbia Gas has brought in new alternative housing options for its affected customers.

They're not full and they're not being opened for the homeless.

Carina Pappalardo runs the Daybreak Shelter in Lawrence. All 51 beds there are full. They fill up fast. The shelter has just received a donation of pillows. A rarity, says Pappalardo, since the gas explosions.

"There's been some neglect in the diversion of funds that we might have received from community people who, out of the generosity of their heart, are helping people during the situation with the gas explosion[s]," she says.

Pappalardo says it's hard knowing that there are available housing options. After the explosions, Columbia Gas brought in more than 350 camping trailers for their customers, and there's a warming center where people can spend the night as a last resort.

"But they are staffed with local police officers," Pappalardo says. "So, nobody can get in unless you can prove that you were in those affected areas."

What Pappalardo means is that in order to take advantage of the alternative housing during the cold weather, you have to prove that you were a Columbia Gas customer — in other words, someone who lives in a home.

Pappalardo says what upsets her the most is that those housing options aren't even at capacity, and they could be used to help the city's homeless.

Chris Besse, with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, which has been helping coordinate the disaster relief, says many Columbia Gas customers opted to stay with family or are in hotel rooms booked by the utility.

He says the warming center is seeing some use, just not much.

"Depending on the night, one or two people. A pretty small group," Besse says. "And then during the day, there's been additional people that pop in, usually under a dozen or so that may be looking for a place to get warm during the day or taking a warm shower or get a warm meal so that they can use those services if they need it."

And those services, despite not much usage, are not available to homeless people.

"Right now, the process through Columbia [Gas] and through the local officials is that it's for those impacted customers," Besse says. "Any additional people who might need different social services can reach out to their local officials and determine what other options may be available to them."

The Lawrence mayor's office declined to comment for this story, and a Columbia Gas spokesperson said the company will look into the issue.

Back at the bus station, before the homeless eat, before they find a semi-warm space for the cold night, someone says a prayer — praying for a bed for all those who need one.

This segment aired on October 25, 2018.

Quincy Walters Twitter Reporter
Quincy Walters is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.

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