A warehouse for the poor

A warehouse for the poor: Holyoke absorbs state's homeless Saturday, February 9, 2008
Anna Badkhen Boston Globe

HOLYOKE - Eleven families are crammed into the tattered Main Street Shelter for the homeless in Holyoke.

But none are from the city. They came from Lawrence, Springfield, Chicopee, and other spots where services for the poor were overwhelmed.

One of the poorest cities in the state, Holyoke has plenty of homeless shelters, affordable housing, and an extensive network for assisting the poor. As the slumping economy, widening unemployment, and high rents push some Massachusetts residents toward poverty and homelessness, state agencies are sending more poor families than ever to this city of decrepit duplexes and shuttered storefronts, swelling the ranks of the city's neediest residents.

"We are a warehouse for the poor, and it's not something that the city controls," said Mayor Michael J. Sullivan of Holyoke. "It's something the system is doing to the city. Because we take care of the poor, the state continues to try and put more burden on us."

The US Census Bureau reported last month that the proportion of school-age children living in poverty in Holyoke increased from 33 percent in 2000 to nearly 40 percent in 2005, from 2,828 to 3,233. The number of families with children who lived in Holyoke's shelters grew from 73 in 2005 to 128 at the end of 2007, according to the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which oversees aid to the homeless.

School officials say that 1 in 5 public school students is homeless, living in a shelter or foster care, doubled up with another family, or in transitional housing.

An industrial town whose fortunes ebbed as its paper and textile mills closed, Holyoke has been poor for decades. Now, the city's low cost of living and extensive network of services for the poor are attracting a stream of impoverished families from other places, city officials said. On top of that, state agencies often send people who have become homeless in other parts of the state.

Of the city's 176 beds for homeless families in emergency shelters, Sullivan said "no more than 10 have ever been occupied by people who became homeless in Holyoke."

Funding from private charities and state and federal governments covers many of the direct costs of caring for the poor in Holyoke, but the influx of poor has meant that the city's residents must compete for services with people from elsewhere, Sullivan said. In schools, teaching often takes a back seat to ensuring that the poorest students are clothed and fed. The city's public schools are among the worst-performing in the state.

"You don't want to blame the victims," Sullivan said. "People say to me you should have stronger policies to keep people out. But if we don't help them, who's going to?"

Holyoke's homeless shelters can accommodate four times the number of families per capita than homeless shelters in Boston. And when shelters are full in other places, the state Department of Transitional Assistance sends homeless families to shelters with open spots, often in Holyoke. Last year, 40 families from the Boston metropolitan area were referred to Holyoke, Sullivan said.

"Our goal is to place families as close to the local office as possible, based on the availability of units," said Alison Goodwin, a spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees the agency. But if local shelters are full, state regulations require that homeless families be housed in the first unit available, Goodwin said.

Agencies operating emergency shelters in Holyoke received more than $4 million from the state in fiscal year 2008, Goodwin said.

Asked about the dearth of space in shelters in other parts of the state, Julia E. Kehoe, who heads the Department of Transitional Assistance, responded in a written statement she sent through Goodwin that the department "continues to work with Mayor Sullivan and other elected officials to develop comprehensive strategies addressing the issue of poverty in Western Massachusetts. People living in poverty should have equal access to opportunity, no matter where they live."

Kenneth Guerra, a former store manager; Amanda Otero, a former certified nurse assistant; and their 7-year-old son, Kenneth III, were sent to Holyoke from Chicopee after the parents lost their jobs and no longer could pay rent.

Marangela Owino - whose daughter, Gabriella, was born here three months ago - was sent here from Springfield.

Gladys Gonzalez and her 14-year-old son, Gabriel, came from Orlando, Fla.

"I'm 105 miles away from home," said Christina Carrillo of Lawrence, who ended up in the shelter with her daughter Olivia, 3, after losing her job as a medical secretary and failing to pay rent on her three-bedroom apartment.

"We get referrals all the way from Boston" when Boston shelters have no vacancies, said Leida Cartagena, who works at the Valley Opportunity Council Inc., a Holyoke nonprofit that operates the shelter.

At the Kelly Elementary School, where young Kenneth Guerra attends first grade, at least five other students live in shelters. At the Lawrence Elementary School several blocks away, that number is 105, up from 78 last September.

In both schools, 1 in 3 students has been living in Holyoke for a few months, referred here by state agencies, and will probably leave before the year is over, school principals estimated.

School staff at Kelly Elementary keep extra clothes to hand out to students, most of whom are staying in overcrowded duplexes with broken windows mended with plywood or in the apartment buildings that line the potholed roads around the school.

Every day some child comes to school without a coat, a hat, boots, gloves, or even long pants, said Jacqueline Glasheen, assistant principal, who stores a bag with donated winter boots in her office. "They come in flip-flops," she explained.

One blustery day last month, a child-sized parka was lying on Glasheen's chair. "I got a note from a teacher on my desk this morning," she said, " 'Alex in second grade needs a winter coat.' "

Almost all of the school's 452 students are so poor that they receive school lunch for free or at a discount. For many, school meals may be the only food they get all day, said Chad M. Mazza, the school principal.

The Main Street Shelter serves three meals a day and has a refrigerator for the 11 families to share.

But there is little that Kenneth Guerra III's parents can afford to put in the refrigerator. Still unemployed, they receive a combined monthly food stamp benefit of $209, most of which the shelter requires them to save so that one day they can rent an affordable apartment, probably becoming another poor family that settles down in Holyoke.

But the shelter staff locks the kitchen for the night. "When we get hungry we can't go downstairs to get anything," said Kenneth Guerra III, skinny and pale. He bit his lip, and fell silent, apparently thinking of his old life in Chicopee.

"He still asks me every day when he can go back," his mother said.

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