A town's crisis of conscience

A town's crisis of conscience  Lawsuit hits
Framingham's sense of community - and free speech
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Erica Noonan Boston Globe
A cheery red sign in downtown Framingham has helpful directional fingers pointing newcomers to various important landmarks: the public library, Town Hall, Registry of Motor Vehicles, train station, and the South Middlesex Opportunity Council.

SMOC - which runs social welfare programs for 21,000 poor and disabled people annually - has become as much a part of the fabric of the town center as any public institution.

For decades, Framingham was SMOC's ally in its war on poverty and social ills, and intake centers and shelters were built all over town for the people most in need of assistance.

But in recent years, relations between SMOC and its host town have turned bitter.  An ever-growing chorus of residents has accused SMOC of being a ruthless poverty broker that attracts undesirable - even dangerous - people to Framingham, and imposes new projects and shelters that hurt local property values, all with no consultation with neighbors.  They point to town research that found an explosive increase in local properties bought by social service agencies - from 26 to 240 over the past 15 years.  Police Chief Steven Carl told a town study group in 2005 that 40 percent of the arrests logged by his department happen downtown, and that the town was troubled by vagrants who spend their nights at a downtown shelter and wandered the streets by day.

The hostility hasn't been lost on those who use SMOC's services.

"I've been sitting there on a bench on Park Street, and seen looks from people walking by," said Kurt Nasta, 44, a disabled veteran living in SMOC housing. p; "It's not a look of pity.  It's disgust."

SMOC fired back last month with a massive, far-reaching federal civil rights lawsuit charging 15 town officials and citizens with an alleged conspiracy to discriminate against poor and disabled people.  The lawsuit says an Internet-fueled campaign of hate created a hostile atmosphere in Framingham, one that encouraged town officials to illegally stall SMOC's plans to expand Sage House, a home for recovering drug addicts and their families, and open Larry's Place, a shelter for chronically homeless veterans.

Caught in the middle of the furor are the clients - people who come to Framingham in desperate need of help.  Daisha Cardona, 25, and her four small children, ages 5 and younger, live at Sage House's new facility in a gracious old nursing home on Winter Street, while her 30-year-old husband recovers from an addiction to crack cocaine.

Her family was homeless, with nowhere else to turn, when they arrived in town last March from Springfield, with everything they owned in a few stackable plastic bins.  Her husband had tried other rehab programs, but this was the first where she and the kids could be at his side, and get therapy of their own, Cardona said.

"God brought me here," she said in a recent interview.  "If it weren't for Sage House, I'd be living under a bridge with my kids.  We'd be on the street."

Today, Cardona said, both she and her husband are working, and they belong to a church on Hollis Street.  Their oldest daughter is enrolled in kindergarten, and they aspire to stay in Framingham and someday buy a home.

Her old neighborhood in Springfield was too dangerous for her children to play outside, for fear they'd step on hypodermic needles.  Framingham, on the other hand, "is beautiful, people care, and it's safe," she said.

Cardona knows there are residents who don't want recovering drug addicts such as her husband as neighbors.

From the Sage House dining room window, one can see "for sale" signs dotting lawns on several houses near the new shelter.

But Cardona is earnest about her desire to get a fresh start in Framingham, and her family's desire for redemption.  "People will have their own opinions.  I don't judge them for what they think," she said.

Back when SMOC started buying property in Framingham, nobody thought to be outraged.  Until the late 1980s, the community had bounty to share - the post-war generation had enjoyed solid, working-class suburban living, and lifetime employment at jobs with GM, Ford, and the Dennison paper company.  Over the years, SMOC focused on buying properties downtown so its clients could reach them easily, and walk someplace to shop, congregate, catch a bus, or look for a job.

Until a few years ago, SMOC had close ties with neighbors, and selectmen and state legislators would regularly attend program and shelter openings, said Jerry Desilets, SMOC's director of behavioral services.

But last year, when the town concluded an investigation of the local impact of social service agency programs, the results were damning.  One shelter, since closed, was admitting sex offenders and men actively drinking and doing drugs.

"It was opened to help people.  But there is a dark side to everything that happens.  The dark side to the shelter is its negative impact on crime, disorder and fear of crime in the town," Police Chief Carl told the study committee.

The committee also found that Framingham had become one of eight statewide regional reentry centers for newly released prison inmates.

"Given the high rates of re-offense, this is a significant personal concern to many of us on the committee," the citizen group wrote in its 79-page report, issued in May 2006.  The study fanned the flames of a community debate on local Internet chat boards, and helped spawn citizen groups devoted to limiting the expansion of SMOC programs.

In interviews with the Globe, people on both sides said the lawsuit was an inevitable result of a years-long impasse between SMOC and Framingham officials.  But the ferocity and breadth of the lawsuit - which names the defendants as private citizens as well as in their official town roles - shocked many Framingham residents, who said they felt the action was a direct attempt to squelch free speech.

When contacted recently, a number of defendants refused to comment on the lawsuit, citing fear of reprisal or more legal action by SMOC.

One defendant who spoke on the condition of anonymity said none of SMOC's critics had anything against people like Cardona or Nasta.

"This was never about individual people," the defendant said.  "This is about the operation of SMOC, and about them bringing groups of people into town.  Nobody is asking to throw anyone out of town - it was always about concern over unfettered growth."

Framingham has taken on far more than its share of the needy, the defendant says, but now SMOC is seeking to punish people who want the agency to slow down the influx by squelching their ability to speak out.  "The lawsuit is totally for intimidation purposes," the defendant said.

Nasta, a former cook and construction worker, said he knows that some local residents see SMOC as an enemy.  But he is not some out-of-towner looking for a handout, he said.

Rather, he has the misfortune of being homeless in his hometown.  A 1981 graduate of Framingham South High School, he worked as cook in his 20s and served in the Marines from 1986 to 1989.  He came back to Massachusetts and made a living in construction or cooking, bouncing around among rental apartments, the homes of friends, or sometimes sleeping in his car.

In 2004, after a shift cooking at Truffles in Milford, he was pulled over for driving under the influence of alcohol.  His fifth offense, it came with a two-year mandatory jail sentence.

He was released last year, homeless, jobless, and needing a hip replacement.  SMOC offered him a room in a shelter, and he is scheduled to get his operation Dec. 10.  He hopes to find a job and his own place soon thereafter.  Cooking is too hard on his leg, so he hopes to find something to do with computers or people, he said.

Nasta sees people he knows all the time in downtown Framingham, classmates who got jobs as police officer or firefighters, or are doing business at the courthouse.  His roots go deep here, he said.

"I'm not ashamed," he said.  "I'm not trying to live off the state, I've been working my whole life.

"I need the help getting back on my feet.  But I have a good heart.  I'm trying to do the right things."

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