Struggles of homeless aired at Jones Hill hearing

Sabrina, who lives at the St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children, testified at a hearing on homelessness. At right are Boston city councilors Andrea Campbell, Frank Baker and Annissa Essaibi-George. Maddie Kilgannon photo

City Councillor At-Large Annissa Essaibi-George and four of her colleagues heard emotional testimony on Jones Hill Tuesday evening at the second hearing of the new Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health, and Recovery at St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children on Cushing Avenue.

“When I was teaching, I had students that were homeless,” said committee chair Essaibi-George, who was a Boston public schools teacher before being elected to the Council last fall. “I didn’t realize the magnitude of the issue, particularly of family homelessness.”

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Essaibi-George held her first committee hearing on homelessness last month at which councillors were told that there are more than 3,000 homeless students in the public schools and 990 homeless families in the Boston area.

“When I realized the sheer numbers of family homelessness in Boston, it caught me by surprise,
Councillors Andrea Campbell, Frank Baker, Matt O’Malley, and Tito Jackson joined Essaibi-George at the neighborhood hearing. Most Council hearings are held in City Hall, which councillors say, creates a barrier for some who would like to share their stories. “I am a firm believer that you have to get out into the communities to have a meaningful impact,” Campbell said.

St. Mary’s, where the hearing took place, provides shelter for families, alongside seven distinct emotional, educational, and economic programs for women and children.

“I think St. Mary’s does its best for the population that needs it the most,” said Baker.

According to Deirdre Houtmeyers, who has served as the President of St. Mary’s for two and a half years, roughly 200 woman and children live at either St. Mary’s in Dorchester or Crossroads in East Boston, which is under St. Mary’s purview.

“I decided to testify because I love this place,” said Yanira, the first at the hearing to share her story. The 21-year-old became overcome with emotion, but continued, “not only because I live here.”

St. Mary’s is the third shelter in which Yanira and her 6-year-old daughter have lived. She described her experience there as being the best situation for herself and her daughter, compared to the other shelters.

As part of St. Mary’s Women at Work Program, Yanira works at Corcoran Management in Brighton, where she said she is developing her skills and professional experience. Every day, she said, she works towards her goal of someday having a home of her own.

Another woman, Sabrina, then stood up at the microphone and held her young son Trey as she shared her story. She described her situation as one intrinsically “set up for failure.”

A shelter helped Sabrina find housing as a young mother, she said. But, “Instead of giving me the proper steps I needed, I was pushed out by the system before I was ready.” Sabrina explained, in tears, that within a year she found herself no longer able to pay rent. She was ultimately separated from her children and was soon back in a shelter.

Sabrina now lives at Crossroads, where she has been able to reunite with all four of her children. “I’m getting my life back together,” she said. “I’m so grateful for where I’m at.”

“I am so happy that Crossroads has programs for young mothers. We need so much more than just a push out the door,” she said.

Tara, who has lived at St. Mary’s for over a year, was one of the last to testify. In the past six months, she lost both her mother and the father of her young son. “And now I am kind of alone,” she said.

She is part of the Strive Program in Codman Square and now feels that she is on a solid path forward. Tara plans to take classes at Bunker Hill Community College this summer, studying political science and history. Ultimately, she said, “I want to come back and help.”

Yanira, Sabrina, and Tara shared a similar sentiment — that St. Mary’s provided a and protected a sense of family and home.

Councillor Essaibi-George concluded the meeting by remarking on the “beautiful hopes for the future” that filled the room.

Essaibi-George said after the meeting that she wants to move forward with the conversation, now with an eye toward solutions.

“I would like to do a working session with all the shelters to have a conversation where we can start identifying some of the quicker answers to the bigger problems of homelessness that were addressed tonight,” she said.