Homelessness can happen to anyone. Millions of families are just one accident, illness or layoff away – a lesson my family found out the hard way. We had always been self-sufficient, acquiring and operating an airport shuttle business 3 months, but lost our business in 2001 once air travel sharply declined due to the attacks of 9/11. Without our business, we were unable to keep our home and wound up living with my mother.
Whoever says living doubled-up is not a form of homelessness has clearly not lived it first-hand. Our family of four was in a small, single room with our two sons sleeping on the floor. Our possessions were in storage. It was my mother’s home – it did not feel like our home. We were homeless.
What kept us going was the hope that we would quickly receive a Section 8 voucher because of my husband’s disability status. That’s what we were told. But after waiting and hoping for months, we found out the Section 8 Program had frozen its waitlist. We could not afford a place on our own, and after six months with my mother, we had to move on.
We went to the Department of Transitional Assistance for shelter. We were told our family would have to be split up, with my older son and husband going to one shelter, and my younger son and I another. They could not even guarantee the different shelters would be in the same city. After months of cramped conditions and instability, this was almost too much to bear. Thankfully, we were able to plead our case and were placed in a hotel and stayed together as a family.
We were grateful for the place to live but it was very difficult to prepare food because there were no kitchen facilities; only a microwave and dorm-sized refrigerator. We had food stamps but there were still many times that we had no food to eat. We weren’t familiar with the city and didn’t know where to access food pantries or soup kitchens. I often had to go to local restaurants for food for my family. Many kind people helped us and for that we are very thankful.
After 3 months in the hotel, we were on the move again, placed in a family shelter operated by Catholic Charities. The waitlists for shelters for intact families are very long and we were lucky to only wait 3 months. We were glad we were safe and together but the shelter staff was not especially helpful. The main supports we received were weekly nutrition classes and some apartment applications. We were supposed to see a Family Advocate once a week, but only saw them once a month. Maybe their caseloads were too high, but regardless, it was very frustrating.
What finally did help our family was the Homeless Families Program (HFP) at Family Health Center. It was instrumental in getting my family housed and connected to medical care, mental health care, dental, vision, transportation, and schools for our children. In addition, my husband tested positive for TB while in shelter, and my husband was able to get his 8 month treatment there. HFP helped where others did not through the level of in-person assistance we received. The staff had time to work with us and the relationships we developed were essential. They made phone calls on our behalf, provided us resources, spent time learning our case, and understood the challenges of homelessness. The HFP Coordinator even got me to my first Health Care for the Homeless Conference in DC.
HFP found us an apartment a few weeks before Christmas 2003. Although we now had an apartment, it was very difficult to afford with my husband’s SSDI income and my SSI income. We had Food Stamps, Fuel Assistance, and MassHealth (our state health insurance), but things did not get easier for us until five years later when we finally received our Section 8 voucher. This was seven years after our struggles began with the loss of our business.
What concerns me most is how difficult my family had it when we had many more resources than some. We had a friend to stay with. We had income that kept coming in. We could manage to scrape by without a voucher and find an apartment. Without our benefits from Social Security we would have never been able to leave the shelter and get our own apartment. We might still be homeless.
That is why I have tried to give back through advocacy. Being homeless in a family is traumatic and the system does not always make it easier. The work I have done through the National Consumer Advisory Board and other groups allows me to share my experience and improve programs. If others do the same, hopefully we can prevent more families from falling into homelessness and make sure families have the support they need to find and stay together in housing.
Amy Grassette is the former Chair of NCAB and current Secretary of the NHCHC Board of Directors. She is a married mother of 5 and lives in Worcester, MA.