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How a nonprofit moved 150 people from 'Mass. and Cass' into permanent housing, and is helping them stay there

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Workers begin to clean up Atkinson Street after tents and large pieces of debris were removed. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Workers begin to clean up Atkinson Street after tents and large pieces of debris were removed. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When someone is homeless and sleeping on the street, it's not easy to help them find a permanent home and adjust to a new way of life.

Now imagine helping 150 people do that.

That's what workers from the nonprofit Eliot Community Human Services did in Boston over the past 12 months.

One year ago Wednesday, city officials declared a tent encampment near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, or "Mass. and Cass," a public health emergency. The area had become an open-air drug market where disease outbreaks and assaults were common. A city census found more than 300 people were living there.

Boston officials worked with nonprofits to set up six new transitional housing and shelter programs for people from "Mass. and Cass."

The city tapped Eliot to lead efforts to move people into permanent housing. The organization started with a list of about half of the people staying in the tent encampment.

In January, crews cleared out the tents that remained. After that, some people continued to congregate in the area, and some put up makeshift tents. About 200 people staying in the city's transitional housing are still waiting for permanent shelter.

WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins spoke with Mark Bradshaw, who directs housing programs for Eliot Community Human Services; Ally Fiske, who heads the organization's outreach to unsheltered people; and Hope Wiedenhoefer, who oversees efforts to stabilize Eliot clients once they're housed, about how they approach their work.

Interview Highlights

On the enormity of the job of housing people from "Mass. and Cass":

Mark Bradshaw: "It was certainly overwhelming to be in that area and to, you know, have this list of close to 180 clients that we're trying to locate in a large tent encampment. Realistically, what our motto was from the beginning was to get one thing done a day for each client and that could just be even one conversation.

"You have to kind of get used to the layout of the actual tent encampment and know that this client's tent is on that corner, this client's tent is on that street ... I've seen tents that, you know, have bookshelves ... and bureaus and TVs. I've seen tents that are tarps that are being held together by really shoddy poles and cement blocks. It's a wide spectrum, but realistically, they're all clients' homes. And it's our job to respect their space and to meet them where they are... What that looks like is going into that tent and doing that housing application in that tent."

Ally Fiske: "I think that the first thing that crossed a lot of our minds was that everybody had a story before this. And that was really important to us to get to know what that was... They used to play rugby for 20 years or, you know, all these really fun facts — it allowed us to really build rapport and to start creating outcomes, but then also, establishing trust in the way that we were really wanting to get to know people."

On the way they approached moving people out of what had become a community on the street:

Fiske: "I think we approached it in a way where we were understanding of the fact that people have been marginalized. They're homeless and, you know, experiencing substance use disorders and all sorts of mental health issues — and [we were] not framing it in a way that we wanted to take anybody out of their community and move them elsewhere. But really, we want to make this right."

Bradshaw: "A lot of the times, what I tell my staff to [say to] frame this transition [for] the client is, the minute that they're inside that apartment, it becomes a million times easier. The minute that you close that door behind you and you have your own space and your own bed and your own kitchen, you can start to think about your legal problems, your family issues, your substance use issues, whatever they are. The minute you're inside, all of those issues become manageable."

On empowering people to believe they're worthy of a better life and helping them find purpose to get through the day:

Hope Wiedenhoefer: "You can put someone in an apartment. But they may not have a community. They may not have hobbies. They may not have things that make them happy throughout the day... I had a client who wanted to join a choir. She loves to sing. I've gotten multiple people pets ... Taking care of something, like a cat — that gives you purpose. We've gotten multiple people bicycles, painting supplies, [helped them go] back to school, going and getting a job. All sorts of things that you and I kind of take for granted, but living on the street, you don't have the opportunity to do."

Fiske: "We have clients who are reuniting with family that they've been estranged from. You know, one in particular is planning to have his family come from a foreign country for Christmas because he finally has a space to blow up an air mattress and spend that time with them."

On the challenges some people face adapting to living inside after being unsheltered: 

Fiske: "It's a transition ... And part of it it has been do we need to buy someone a tent to put in their living room for a little bit? Using a hammock instead of a bed? Can you sleep at home three nights in this week? And then we can build off that."

On how people are supported to remain housed:

Wiedenhoefer: "We are serving over 170 stabilization clients right now and have less than a 1% eviction rate... We're the liaison between the landlord and the client. We help make that relationship such that the client can stay in that housing... There are a lot of other programs that have a sobriety requirement in order to get housing. We operate on a 'housing first' model. So we have clients with substance use disorders [who] have never seen a therapist or a psychiatrist. And getting housing is the first step... to then meet with a psychiatrist, pursue maybe a detox or a treatment center. But that's definitely not even close to requirement for housing for us...

"We create a team around them. They have a stabilization service provider, and [the] stabilization service provider knows psychiatrists, knows doctors, you know, helps get them Ubers to the doctor whenever they need it or [to] go to the methadone clinic in the morning. I've definitely called people at 7 a.m. and said, 'Are you on your way to methadone right now? If not, I will get you an Uber.' "

Bradshaw: "The biggest issue that we have come up when a client moves into a unit is not any substance use issues, it's not any mental health issues, it's not them damaging the unit. It's legitimately them bringing in their friends who are sleeping outside because they feel bad for them sleeping outside... typically their friends see them move in and they see a warm roof over their friend's head, and they want to sleep on the couch... You have to have some pretty frank conversations with clients about, you know, 'Obviously we understand where you're coming from... But you worked really hard to attain this housing, so you have to find a different spot for your friends if you want to keep this apartment. And we will do our best to work with your friends to find them housing, as well.' "

On how they measure success:

Bradshaw: "Our success is that if all of these clients are still in housing, and they're living stabilized normal lives, that is our success. We want to see them happy and thriving and settling into their new apartments... We don't want to see folks back on the street. We don't want to see folks evicted. We want to wrap services around them and let them just go about their lives."

This segment aired on October 19, 2022.

Related:

Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.

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Lisa Mullins Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.

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