Non-profit creates new housing model for homeless youths in Dorchester setting

Shown (l-r): Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Bridge Over Troubled Waters board member Laura Reynolds, BOTW executive director Elisabeth Jackson, Liberty Mutual Insurance Chairman and CEO David H. Long, Liberty Mutual Foundation president Melissa MacDonnell and Jessica Freeman, a Bridge Over Troubled Waters client. Photo courtesy Marilyn Humphries Photography

This story first aired on WBUR 90.9 FM. Listen to it here.

When Jessica Freeman found herself with no place to call home, the 25-year-old wasn’t sure where she could go. “I was not in school. I did seasonal jobs or I was unemployed,” she said, “so I was basically not doing much really with myself.” It took her a little while to figure out what she wanted to do and where she wanted to be in life, she said — and homelessness made that harder.

After leaving an abusive household, Freeman first couch-surfed. Later, she started staying at an adult homeless shelter in Boston. As a young woman, she said living in shelters wasn’t easy — and the facilities didn’t offer the services she needed to better her situation.

Two years ago, though, things started to improve for Freeman. She entered a program at Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a downtown-based nonprofit that serves youths who are homeless, runaways, or at-risk.

Freeman’s path to Bridge began with the group’s transitional living program, which features around-the-clock supervision and a host of requirements aimed at equipping young people with life skills, like budgeting and goal-setting.

A New Kind Of Home

In August — with a $1.1 million grant from Liberty Mutual — the nonprofit opened a new housing facility in Dorchester called “Liberty House.” It’s an alternative to shelters where young people get to experience independent living while still benefiting from Bridge’s services. Freeman was among the first to move in.

“It’s, like, the opportunity to get away from, one, having roommates, but yet [living in] a house full of other people? Oh, that’s beautiful,” she said.

A more independent living situation for the young people it serves was something Bridge worked for years to make happen. But, in a white-hot housing market, the group was competing with deep-pocketed buyers.

Bridge Executive Director Elisabeth Jackson said she spent two years looking for the right property before finding a two-family house in Dorchester. The nonprofit owns the house outright, and Jackson said that means greater stability for the residents.

“They can make mistakes and still get back up and keep pushing,” she said, adding that the residents “don’t have to worry about, ‘I need to get this subsidy, or that subsidy for me to stay here.’ “ Rent costs $250 a month, which, Jackson said, allows residents to build up savings with the hope of eventually building up their credit history, too.

Liberty House currently has three tenants — with seven other rooms now open. Tenants split utilities evenly.

According to Jackson, the ten units at Liberty House are just a start: Another 200 young people involved with the nonprofit could benefit from the Liberty House model.

Boston’s 2017 homeless census showed that on any given night an estimated 360 youths and young adults are in shelters or on the street.

Sheila Dillon, the city’s housing chief, said Liberty House is a unique way of addressing youth homelessness. “The young adults are living independently, so it’s almost functioning like a housing cooperative,” she said. “But they’ve got a lot of support services if they need it, and the idea that all of these young adults are either in school or in vocational training also sets it apart.”

The city is working on a plan to end youth homelessness in Boston. Dillon said she hopes more big houses like Liberty House will some day help other young people searching for a place to call home.

This segment aired on WBUR 90.9FM on November 29. The Reporter and WBUR have a partnership in which the two organizations share content and resources. Simón Rios is a WBUR reporter who is currently working from the Dorchester Reporter newsroom. He may be reached at srios@wbur.org.