At the Community Day Center of Waltham, guests mill about the shelter on weekday afternoons. They sit down for a hot meal, use the computers and Internet, and chat with the Center’s workers. Each day, up to 60 guests – or 600 per year – visit the facility. The high attendance rate makes sense: this is the only homelessness center open during the day in the MetroWest area.
As an organization that relies solely on donations for funding, the Center has operated successfully for eight years, providing intensive services designed to stabilize and enhance guests’ lives.
The facility provides short-term services, like telephone lines and Internet-equipped computers, to more in-depth personal services, like job-hunting and housing placement assistance.
Marilyn Lee-Tom, executive director, said having a permanent daytime fixture is important for helping homeless individuals find stability and land jobs.
“Imagine trying to call employers, or go for interviews when you’re living on the streets, or living in a shelter,” she said. “What phone number or address do you give when you’re homeless? We have computers, a phone line, and a mailing address. They use this as their base.”
A guest named Susan said she was laid off almost four years ago and moved from the South Shore to live in Waltham’s Bristol Lodge shelter.
As with other homeless people interviewed for this story, Susan's last name is being withheld to spare her embarassment.
, After a two-year stint making $26/hour in sales and marketing in Newton, Susan was let go again recently and has been living out of her car.
“I have a car, thank God for that, because I have protection and storage,” Susan said. “It’s rough. I have to find friends to let me take a shower or learn to do spot showers in bathrooms.”
Susan, who uses the computers at the Center regularly to look for jobs, receives unemployment compensation, but gives half of it to her daughter so that she can continue attending college in the South.
“She doesn’t know that I’m living in my car. She thinks I’m living with friends, but I don’t want to add to her stress load,” Susan said.
Wendy, who has been homeless since October, saidb she has received Social Security Disability Insurance for two years for car accident related disabilities. She applied for “Section 8” or subsidized housing, but is on a year-long waiting list.
“I’m living on a fixed income,” Wendy said. “It’s a problem for me and I’m sure it’s a problem out there for a lot of people.”
Wendy is thankful for the services the Center provides, as she and many other homeless individuals have nowhere else to go.
“We have to leave [the night shelters] in the morning, and be out all day,” she said. “We can come here when it’s cold or rainy out, get some lunch, hang out in one place, watch TV, take a nap… it’s a good place to come during the day for homeless people.”
Jay, 47, has been homeless for five months, living under a bridge in Waltham. After he fell behind on his child support, the courts suspended his license.
“I’ve been a truck driver for over 30 years, and they suspended my license,” Jay said. “All the jobs I look at need driver license which I don’t have, and it’s hard because I’ve been a truck driver since I was 18.”
During the days, Jay said he finds solace at the Center. Nighttime, however, is a different story.
“[The Center] is just a safe place to be, because it’s not on the street,” he said. “Nighttime is different because they’re not open. So I have to survive at night. I’m isolated at night. I try to go to the safest place, where I know there’s no violence. But here I feel safe.”
For all the services Lee-Tom and the staff provide, Jay said he has no problem in giving a helping hand back.
“When I come here they talk to me, they’re very supportive,” he said. “I have no problem volunteering with help washing dishes or serving food.”
While the Center provides short-term help for the homeless, Lee-Tom said she supports a “housing-first” approach to end the issue permanently.
A housing-first approach refers to the model where homeless individuals are placed into subsidized apartments, studios or houses before concentrating on anything else, Lee-Tom said.
“Housing first is important because it’s designed to remove all barriers to housing,” she said. “You don’t have to have money to get in, You don’t have to prove that you’re abstaining from drugs or alcohol to get in, You don’t have to go through bureaucratic hoops. Once you’re in housing, safe and secure, there will be services to help you.”
Lee-Tom said homeless individuals should receive wraparound services, such as providing mental health services, medication, job search help, and family visitations, after they acquire a stable living space.
“In Waltham, a single room apartment could be $700 to $1000, and many of our homeless guests don’t have that money because they also need first month’s rent, last month’s rent and a security deposit,” Lee-Tom said. “Because they’re unable to get into a stable living situation, their lives are out in the street, and it impacts the individual mentally and physically.”
Overall, Lee-Tom stressed that numerous homeless guests do not fit the stereotypical profile of the bothersome panhandler or street beggar, and deserve to be seen and respected as such.
“I want people to see that there’s not one stereotypical person,” she said. “When I come down here, it’s just like meeting my friends. They’re just like you and I.”
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To contact Jaclyn Reiss, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org