Brookview House focus: pandemic's long-term impacts

Deborah Hughes

In her 31 years at Brookview House, a Dorchester-based organization dedicated to women and children experiencing homelessness, president and CEO Deborah Hughes has never seen a crisis wreak havoc on vulnerable populations as Covid-19 has done over the past year. 

“I thought we had been through every possible crisis, but this one has hit us in a way I could have never imagined,” Hughes told the Reporter in an interview last week. “People talk about the ‘triple pandemic,’ and it really did hit us in multiple ways. Nothing compares to this that I’ve seen, and 2008 was pretty bad.”

From its headquarters in Franklin Field, Brookview House has for decades provided vital services and affordable housing to families that find themselves on the street due to factors out of their control like evictions or domestic abuse. Using a dual-pronged approach — with youth development programming like “Girls Who Code” and other after-school and summer tutoring and enrichment services working in tandem with education and job training programs for adults — the organization has achieved a high school graduation rate of 88 percent for its youth participants, with 92 percent of Brookview mothers being able to maintain permanent housing after leaving.

But over the last several months, the pandemic has directly led to spikes in homelessness and domestic violence rates in the city, at once creating a greater need for and placing enormous stress on Brookview House’s services.

Hughes didn’t sugarcoat the situation that she and her organization are currently staring down: “With Covid, it’s been really frightening,” she said. When we look at what is going on for families experiencing homelessness, the challenges are huge.

“The level of unemployment has risen exponentially in our communities. Most of these folks who were working in restaurants and at other low level minimum wages jobs have been laid off, and we’ve seen that effect in addition to having food insecurity. Folks are working around evictions and having to choose between rent, utilities, and has been devastating for our community.”

In terms of its services, the organization had to adjust for safety protocols and fill the gaps left by the closed public school system, on which homeless families normally depend for food and other resources.

Once the virus hit, Brookview House altered its normal after school and summer youth programming and moved to an 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. schedule doing remote learning. Youth at Brookview House have been having morning classroom sessions before switching to enrichment activities that include a writing program, a podcast class, mentoring opportunities, and other arts activities. 

“It’s about broadening what we do and expanding the length of time we work with the kids,” said Hughes. “On top of that, we’ve started doing more with tele-mental health because clinical services are a huge piece of what we do, and with Covid we have even more of our participants dealing with depression, anxiety, and fear.”

Brookview House is working on putting together a vaccine clinic, Hughes said, to help its residents and neighbors get access to immunization. But even as vaccines continue to roll out in Massachusetts, she is cognizant that the threat of the virus will not completely disappear for some time, especially for vulnerable populations in places like Dorchester and Mattapan. 

“It’s going to take us a long time to recover...most of our constituents are Black and Latinx, so the vaccine is key to our recovery,” she said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in 2021, but for our communities, Covid will be around for the next two to three years. Everyone needs to get the vaccine in order to begin to move forward.

“Getting to herd immunity is important, so if we can’t get folks to get on board with getting the vaccine, it will be an even longer process. That’s our biggest challenge right now in addition to everything else.”

Brookview’s Women’s Safety Network (WSN), a Dorchester program established to provide aid and resources to survivors of domestic violence, is another entity currently under considerable strain. The linguistically and culturally specific counseling, safety planning, coordinated case management, childcare, housing search assistance, legal advocacy, financial literacy, and life skills workshops offered by the WSN are all pieces of an approach that gets women out of dangerous situations and on a path to a new start.

Maintaining that network has taken a lot of above and beyond effort, said Hughes. “Incidences of domestic violence have increased, and because of Covid, it becomes difficult if not impossible for people to leave that situation. It takes a lot of safety planning and finding different ways to engage with’s on us to make contact and keep in touch, especially now that they are spending more time at home with the abusers. We’ve been doing more calls, providing counseling and other services, ensuring they can get PPP supplies.”

Hughes cited one success story from last fall where a woman who had been homeless for the last seven years finally achieved permanent housing with the help of Brookview House.

“We doubled down on our housing search process; she was diligent; we were diligent; we put all our resources together,” she said. “There are all these barriers that prevent homeless individuals from getting permanent housing, but we worked through and addressed those barriers, and that was one of the biggest things that sticks out from last year— for her, it was huge.”

As difficult as the last year has been, Hughes doesn’t count on things improving anytime soon for her organization, pointing to a recent PEW Foundation poll in which, she noted, 60 percent of respondents indicated they would not be able to pay next month’s rent.

“The scary part for me is 2021. When it comes to ending the eviction moratorium, 2021 and 2022 will be even worse than what we saw in 2020,” she said. “People can’t afford to pay rent, and they’ve already reduced the unemployment aid people are getting.”

A round of Covid-related grants received last year helped to ease the financial pressure on Brookview, said Hughes, along with a cadre of donors who “stepped up to the plate.”